Australia to Stop Exporting Waste

Posted on 7 October, 2020

The Australian Government has introduced legislation seeking to phase out waste exports from January next year, after numerous Asian countries, including Indonesia tightened restrictions on the importing of foreign rubbish.

The legislation aims to end waste exports from Australia, focusing on plastic, paper, glass and tires, most of which have been shipped to Asian countries for many years.

Whilst the legislation is undoubtedly encouraging, the Government faces the challenge of equipping the recycling industry with the resources required to considerably increase rates of recycling in Australia. 

Where Does Australia Send Its Waste?

At present, Australia exports 645,000 tons of waste per year, with countries like Indonesia carrying much of the burden. Theoretically, the waste is exported to be recycled offshore, ensuring a sustainable solution. In practice, this has not always been the case. 

For a long time China was the main importer of global waste, allowing Australia to depend on its main trading partner for recycling. However, after China refused to continue taking waste in 2017, Australian exports were directed towards Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

The impact on Indonesia was significant, with East Java receiving 250% more waste from Australia in 2018, than it did in 2014. Whilst the waste was ostensibly sent for recycling, Ecoton Group told the ABC last year, that much of the waste is either burnt, or dumped into the Brantas River, thereby harming the local environment. The Brantas River supplies tap water for 5 Million Indonesians. 

Plastic Waste is piling up in Indonesia. Photo: Tom Fisk, Pexels
Plastic Waste is piling up in Indonesia. Photo: Tom Fisk, Pexels

In light of these challenges, the Indonesian Government sought to implement tighter restrictions, resulting in waste being sent back to its country of origin. By late 2019, Indonesia had returned more than 100 shipping containers of waste back to Australia, creating a significant challenge for the Australian Government. 

Can Australia Manage its own Waste?

The recent announcement appears to be a significant step towards Australia taking responsibility for its own waste. However, questions remain as to whether Australia has the capacity to recycle its own waste. Having been dependent on exporting rubbish for so long, such a change will place considerable pressure on the domestic recycling industry.

The government has pledged to spend AUD$190 Million on a recycling modernisation fund, and anticipated that 10,000 new jobs will be created in the industry. It hopes to implement incentives for companies to recycle, to ensure that Australian waste is recycled within Australia.

At present, Australia only recycles 12% of plastics, reflecting the considerable improvement required in the domestic industry.

The Australian Council of Recycling told The Guardian, that despite the progress made, Australia has virtually no market for soft plastics at present. Soft plastics are used in many forms of food packaging, and frequently end up in landfill. 

Whilst Australia will no longer dump its waste problem on its Asia-Pacific neighbours, the problem itself will not go away. Recycling rates need to increase exponentially. 

What Can Individuals do?

Individuals can also play a part in bolstering recycling efforts.

Both major Australian supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, have in store bins to collect soft plastics for recycling. Instead of merely throwing out plastic bags and packaging, bring it into the supermarket next time you shop.

Equally, people can change consumption habits, and purchase products which produce less waste. Bottled water, for example, creates a significant amount of unnecessary waste, with bottles taking 1000s of years to recycle. Drinking tap water, if safe, is a much more cost effective and environmentally friendly option.

The time has come for Australia to take responsibility for its own waste. It remains to be seen whether such an ambition can be realistically achieved.