Let’s talk recycling.
You may think recycling is all clean, green and simple but some significant changes in the global recycling markets have completely disrupted the process.
Now, a lot of your curbside recycling that you cleaned and separated out from your rubbish may be shipped overseas just to be stock pilled or burnt with landfill waste.
Recyclers and councils have been left scrambling to secure their recycling systems now that the once relied upon markets have collapsed.
Balancing the environmental responsibilities of recycling and the changing economic viability of the current system is an overwhelming task.
So, if recycling isn’t as simple as a curbside collection, what does waste management actually look like in New Zealand? And how can your organisation be a part of the solution?
China and the "National Sword" Policy
In 2017, China enacted its “National Sword” policy, banning the import of many plastics and other materials. This policy was later replaced by ‘Blue Sky’ which further extended restrictions on imports.
Previously, China had been the largest buyer of recycled materials, purchasing over 50% of the world’s recyclables. New Zealand and many other countries with curbside recycling, had exported most of their collected recyclables to China, particularly mixed plastic and mixed paper.
Now that China is no longer accepting the same quantity of waste materials, the international market for recycled materials is facing a collapse. The sharp reduction in demand has resulted in a dramatic fall in prices and because there is currently not the capacity to process all the materials outside of China, stockpiles are quickly building.
If solutions aren’t found urgently and measures put in place, materials collected for recycling will eventually be sent to landfill. The environmental repercussions of this are dire.
Already, approximately 2.5 million tonnes of waste are sent to landfill in New Zealand every year. That’s over a tonne of rubbish per household, in only one year. That’s not to mention the rubbish that doesn’t get safely collected and instead, ends up in our waterways and oceans, endangering precious sea-life.
This drastic change in the global market for recycled materials presents an opportunity for government (at both a local and central level) to redesign the system to one that supports a more sustainable, circular economy.
The dire situation that the recycling sector is facing due to global collapse means that taking a step back to rethink recycling and the actions that need to be taken in both the short and long term is more necessary than ever.
While New Zealand can process about half of the paper and cardboard that we collect, a much smaller proportion of collected plastic is able to be processed within our country. Previously, much of these plastics were exported to China for recycling, however it is not expected that international demand, nor market prices will return to the level observed before the Chinese restrictions. So, with that avenue blocked off, NZ has been faced with how to deal with these plastics internally.
While only some operators have been stockpiling difficult to recycle materials like 3-7 plastics, in a recent survey, 82% of councils indicated that the restrictions from China have resulted in struggles with selling 3-7 plastics. These include councils struggling to find new buyers and selling at lower prices.
Recyclers and Councils alike have made efforts to mitigate these negative effects, including seeking new markets, improving material quality and reducing contamination. It is clear, however, that the current system has fundamental issues that prevent the move to a circular, more viable model.
The current system heavily relies on councils and recyclers responding to whatever materials are put on the market by producers. This results in a large amount of effort to maintain clean amounts of usable, desirable materials, which is not always possible. Materials collected are not always in demand and this is particularly the case for 3-7 grade plastics.
An example of a strategy to solve some of these issues is the plan to phase out difficult to recycle and low value materials, such as plastic packaging and notably, the recent plastic bag ban. But the question remains as to how to manage other problematic waste materials.
There are several short-term actions that can be implemented immediately that may have a positive impact, including but not limited to: increasing communications, access to funding and, perhaps most importantly, data collection. Alongside these, there must also be long-term concerted efforts that focus on the future of waste management in New Zealand.
Measure To Manage
With the difficult market conditions that have followed China’s “National Sword” policy, councils and recycling operators must act to secure the future of recycling in their communities. As demand for certain materials drops and recyclers and Councils struggle to sell materials at a reasonable price, it is more important than ever to understand exactly what is coming through the system.
Having a good understanding of the types and quantities of recyclables being collected can ensure that operators can keep an eye on the market. Tracking these quantities, for example, glass, mixed plastics etc. can also provide valuable data for national efforts towards a better recycling system in New Zealand and can be a powerful tool for managing costs.
Currently, there is very little data collected on recycling in New Zealand and questions of what is disposed and how much, remain largely unanswered. To develop robust waste systems going forward, data collection must be improved. Monitoring waste across New Zealand means that this data can be built over the upcoming years so that decisions are made based on current, relevant data and are targeted towards real issues within communities.
When it comes to your organisation, tracking and monitoring waste can help you to observe and look at reducing your environmental impact. Using these valuable insights for your organisation allows you to make the most of the systems you might already have in place, as well as developing alternative solutions.
Data is your best friend when it comes to decision making and evaluating your organisation’s waste and recycling output is no exception.
Our sustainability reporting software e-Bench® can help you track your organisation's waste, as well as providing you with easy-to-interpret management reports so you can monitor the effectiveness of any waste initiatives.
To learn more about e-Bench® and how it could assist you in monitoring your organisation's waste, book a time to chat with us at Carbon EMS.