Local government in South East NSW is stepping forward with a range of ideas to cope with what has been described as a global crisis.
In January 2017, China started demanding an almost zero contamination rate in the raw recyclable materials it accepted for processing from countries around the world.
According to the NSW Environment Protection Agency, until recently China had been accepting more than 30 million tonnes of the world’s waste each year.
“Australia alone sent 1.25 million tonnes of recycled material to China in 2016-17,” the EPA advises.
What is known as the “China Sword Policy” policy has impacted the global market for recyclable materials, including the recyclable materials that are currently collected in NSW.
In simple terms, contamination is placing incorrect items in your recycling bin.
Waste contractor Cleanaway says contamination causes problems during the sorting of recyclables and affects the ability of that material to be processed into a new product. In some cases they say just a few contaminated bins can ruin an entire truckload of recyclables.
Joley Vidau, Waste Management Coordinator with Bega Valley Shire Council says, “The cost per tonne to process recycling went up dramatically to try to meet the much lower contamination rates.
“This saw recycling businesses passing on the costs to their customers, who in most cases are local Councils. Simply put, some Councils cannot absorb this increase.
“In the short term, we are absorbing the extra costs and not passing them on,” Ms Vidau says.
The issue was highlighted earlier this month when Ipswich City Council in Queensland put a temporary freeze on its kerbside recycling program, sending paper, glass, aluminium, and the like straight to landfill.
Mayor Andrew Antoniolli says the changes in China would increase costs to Council in the order of $2 million per annum which potentially equates to a 1.5% – 2% rate rise.
“This is undoubtedly a national issue which will increasingly affect all councils, and consequently each and every person who relies on the services of waste management,” Cr Antoniolli says.
In addition, the Mayor says, “Current contamination levels in the city’s recycling is unacceptably high. About half of everything collected from yellow lid bins is not able to be recycled.”
It’s a point echoed by Lindsay Usher, Eurobodalla Shire Council‘s, Director of Planning and Sustainability, “Contamination needs to be less than one percent,” he says.
“Council’s waste contractor has advised that China is imposing strict new requirements for contamination levels for mixed paper and plastic.
“Most Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) operate between five and 10 percent. Council’s waste contractor is currently working through options to meet the new requirements and is still in the testing stage.
“A recent audit of household yellow lid recycling bins in Eurobodalla showed a contamination rate of 12.7 percent. We’d like to see this improve and there is an opportunity for everyone to pay closer attention to what they put in their recycling bin,” Mr Usher says.
Largely, Mr Usher says the Eurobodalla has so far been unaffected by the Chinese decision.
“Our recycling is processed at the Material Recovery Facility in Shelley Road at Moruya, and produces a relatively clean mixed paper product, currently recycled in Australia,” he says.
“The plastic is also pelletised in Australia and can then be reused to make new products. The glass is processed into a glass sand product at the MRF in Moruya and is utilised in Council’s operations as a replacement for sand, to close the loop locally.
“The markets for recycled aluminium and steel remain unaffected,” Mr Usher says.
In 2016-17, the Moruya MRF processed 4,700 tonnes of material from yellow-lid recycling bins.
In the High Country, Snowy Monaro Regional Council says kerbside recycling will continue with no plans put recyclables into landfill.
“The State Government has released guidelines for its Recycling Relief Fund and Council is pursuing its options under that scheme,” says Patrick Cannon, Snowy Monaro Resource as Waste Group Manager.
“There will be short-term impacts due to the China restrictions but SMRC hopes that long-term solutions will be found on a national level.”
Funding is available to:
- Enable councils to off-set some extra costs associated with kerbside recycling collections subject to guidelines
- Improve council tendering processes to increase the production and use of recycled products
- Fund community education initiatives to reduce kerbside recycling contamination.
- Support co-investment in infrastructure projects to improve the quality of recycled materials produced by MRFs and reduce the amount of unrecyclable material left at the end of the recycling process.
- $5 million to fund grants and programs that identify new uses for recyclable materials and increase the production and use of recycled products.
It’s money the Bega Valley also has its eye on.
“Council is actively seeking funding opportunities to invest in local infrastructure, which would ensure recycling is processed locally,” Ms Vidau says.
“The benefits include increased local job opportunities, control of recycling generated in the Shire and positive environmental outcomes.
“As a community, we must manage this crisis in a responsible manner; and seek to deliver more sustainable solutions,” she says.
A new Bega Valley Shire Waste Strategy is being developed and is near completion.
“One of the key outcomes is managing our recycling at a local level to ensure we achieve the best environmental and financial outcomes for our community,” Ms Vidau says.
All three South East council’s point to the growing pressure being felt by the China Sword Policy and their efforts monitoring and adjusting to the crisis in the months ahead.
“Competition between MRFs to have their material accepted in Australian [rather than China] will increase and we will need to do our bit as a community to keep our recycling clean,” Mr Usher says.