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China has thrown a spanner into the recycling conveyor belt; we should take it as an opportunity, writes Gina Dempster. 

Wanaka Wastebusters Gabriel Schwarz (left) and ben Taylor hand-sort recycled plastics and cans....
Wanaka Wastebusters Gabriel Schwarz (left) and ben Taylor hand-sort recycled plastics and cans. Photos: Si Williams
Wastebusters runs recycling centres in Wanaka and Alexandra, and we're passionate about doing the best job we can with our recycling. So you might look at me strangely when I say that the ultimate goal is to recycle less, not more.

I love the saying "If recycling is the answer, then we're asking the wrong question". Filling up our recycling bins won't help us make the leap to a circular economy (aka zero waste). To get to a circular economy, we're going to have to move on from the current make-use-dispose model and design out waste and pollution. Products and materials will be kept in use through repair, reuse, upgrading, remanufacturing and (in the last resort) recycling.

While an over-flowing recycling bin can make you feel like you're doing the right thing, a nearly empty bin can actually be a badge of honour. It's evidence that you've gone to the next level and cut back on the flow of single-use packaging coming in the door. (Or it could just show that you're throwing everything in the rubbish bin. If that's the case, you need some serious one-on-one intervention. Just find a kid who has the Enviroschools programme at their school, and they can explain to you why you need to change).

I don't want to pop anyone's bubble, but all is not well in the recycling world. We've been relying for the past decade on China to do the dirty work. And it has been dirty work. Dirty recycling, highly contaminated with other materials, has been flooding into China. Australian media reports their contamination rate averages 6-10%. Toxic and unrecyclable waste have also been mixed up in the massive flows of recycling.

Understandably, China has had enough and is refusing to deal with it any more. It has introduced a "National Sword" policy banning 24 types of solid waste, including mixed plastics and paper. And they've set a contamination limit of 0.5%.

We can't overestimate the shock wave this is sending though the recycling systems of the world. Think of a hoar frost spreading instantly over the land in the movie Frozen. Suddenly, there is a massive over-supply of recycling materials. Prices have collapsed, materials are being stockpiled.

Australia has been especially hard hit. One of the biggest recycling companies, Visy, stopped accepting recycling from 22 Victorian regional councils on February 22. The Victorian state Government has come up with a $13 million "recycling crisis rescue package" to last from February to June, when council rates are expected to increase by up to 5% to keep paying for recycling. Ipswich City Council, in Queensland, is taking all its kerbside recycling straight to landfill.

New Zealand is feeling the pain too, with recyclers stockpiling plastics and paper. The pain is a warning that the system is under a massive amount of stress. Recycling, the way we're doing it, doesn't live up to our expectations. What do we need to do to prop up the world's recycling system and keep it working while we transition to a circular economy?

Firstly, there's an urgent need to improve the quality of recycling worldwide. Australian media are reporting that a contamination rate of 0.5% is "unachievable" and a "virtual ban" by China. We know this isn't true. Wastebusters' systems minimise contamination. We keep materials separate when we pick them up from businesses and events. We hand-sort them into clean streams of different materials. We're confident our recycling can meet the contamination standard, and other community recyclers around New Zealand will meet it too.

In the past, setting very low contamination targets hasn't been a priority for many recyclers, or for the councils who specify kerbside recycling contracts. This is now going to change. Better designed collection systems and processing systems will be the end result of the push for quality recycling, which is a good thing for the industry and for everyone putting out their recycling.

Secondly, we need more onshore reprocessing of recycling. We have only a tiny number of reprocessors in New Zealand, as it's been very hard to compete with China over the past decade. China has been like a massive magnet sucking nearly all the world's recycling into its force field.

At Wastebusters we recycle as much as we can onshore. Our HDPE (milk bottles) goes to Comspec in Christchurch, which processes it to be made into irrigation pipe. We also sort our glass into three different colours so we can send it to the O-I factory in Auckland to be made into new glass bottles. Although prices have taken a big hit, our very low contamination rates mean we're not having to stockpile any recycling, except for our lowest grade of mixed plastics (3 to 7s such as yoghurt pottles and ice-cream containers). There is just no worldwide demand for 3 to 7 plastics right now, no matter how clean they are.

There's a lot of talk about bringing back onshore reprocessing, but it will take time and money to rebuild our capacity to make recycling into new products in New Zealand. One way of supporting onshore reprocessing is to raise the waste levy, which is used to fund waste minimisation and diversion projects. At the moment, the waste levy is set at a paltry $10 per tonne.

Doubling the levy could help fund more onshore recycling factories and zero waste education. People going to the tip would hardly notice an increase of $10, but over time, the levy should be raised to a level that provides an incentive to find solutions other than throwing rubbish out. A report by Eunomia last year suggested a waste levy of $140 per tonne would be effective.

Thirdly, we need to find ways to take the burden of paying for recycling off rate-payers. Bringing in a drink container deposit-refund system would be a big step forward for New Zealand. We've seen in Australia that litter rates drop dramatically and recycling rates sky-rocket when you get money back for recycling bottles and cans.

Especially in towns such as Wanaka and Queenstown, with lots of tourists and a small rate-payer base, a deposit-refund scheme would be a win for everyone. Tourists want recycling to be done properly, and rate-payers want quality recycling that doesn't push their rates up. I've yet to hear one good argument against bringing in a deposit-refund system for bottles and cans. In fact, anyone I've talked to who is old enough to remember cashing in soft drink bottles for a handful of change (or lollies at the dairy) wonders why we ever got rid of it in the first place.

Finally, we need to ensure businesses take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of their products. So many products are designed to last a short time, some only minutes, before they are destined to be thrown away. Councils and recyclers are expected to pick up the pieces and wave their magic wand to turn them back into usable materials. We do our best, but it's a bit like an apprentice sorcerer trying to hold back a flood with a broom.

Sooner or later we have to turn the waste tap off. We need to have mandatory product stewardship schemes for products such as tyres, plastic packaging and electronic waste, which would put the responsibility for waste on to the businesses making the products. That would change the design process to include waste reduction and resource recovery in the initial design. It's so much more efficient planning for waste reduction and recovery at the start, compared to trying to figure out a solution after the product's been used and discarded.

It also makes financial sense. A report by the Sustainable Business Network this week showed that Auckland could be $8.8 billion better off in 2030 if the city made the transition to a circular economy.

In the meantime, reduce and reuse what you can, recycle the rest. And if that means your recycling bin is empty on recycling day, be proud not to put it out.

 - Gina Dempster is communications officer at Wanaka Wastebusters. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.



Well said Gina. I lived in Wanaka for several years up until 2012 and the Wastebusters system and attitude was impressive. I learnt so much about recycling and re-using. Moved to Dunedin and went back 20 years or more. Keep up the good work on educating people. :)

I live in central Dunedin. The student renters are the worst polluters-the don't seem to care. Streets are littered and nobody wants to speak up and point the finger. The difference is highlighted by how much better it is when students vacate Dunedin over summer.





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