In March 2018, the recycling world went into shock. Tired of receiving contaminated recyclable waste, China announced a policy called National Sword that restricted the import of 32 different waste types, including most plastics, unless it met stringent contamination limits.

While this ‘ban’ was a surprise to many of us who hadn’t realised our diligently separated waste was being exported back to China, it spells potential disaster for the waste management sectors of Australia and New Zealand.

According to Blue Environment, Australia was sending 30% of all our recycled metal, paper and plastic to China, representing a whopping 1.27 million tonnes of waste in 2017. China bought nearly NZ$26million of New Zealand’s recyclable plastic, metal and paper in 2017, representing 50% of all exported waste according to Stats NZ.

While this could lead to exciting opportunities for local waste reprocessing plants, the reality is that we have limited local markets to replace China’s previous demand for recyclable materials. So with other Asian markets such as Malaysia getting close to capacity, and no time to establish new markets at home, mountains of waste are rapidly stockpiling in recycling depots, causing fire risks and sending the market into crisis.

In Australia, the price of low-quality mixed plastic has dropped from approximately A$325 per tonne to A$75 per tonne, while paper has crashed from around AU$124 per tonne to zero. It is often costing more to provide waste collection services than the materials are worth to sell. This will push up collection fees and reduce the incentive for Councils and companies to recycle.

How will China’s ‘ban’ effect cleaning companies?

What effect will the recycling crisis have on the cleaning industry? Will you still be required to manage recycling and waste separation in the future? The New Zealand markets for glass, cardboard and PET/HDPE plastics are currently holding up “reasonably well” according to Eugenie Sage, Minister of Conservation (1). In Australia, several State Governments are propping up their recycling sector with hand-outs to Councils, while some waste recyclers are stockpiling materials waiting for a better deal. However, these are very stop-gap measures.

One of the medium-term solutions being put forward, is to increase the quality of recycling to meet China’s new contamination limits, thus enabling exports to re-open. There are calls for Government investment into secondary processing plants for this purpose. The waste management sector is also seeking investment to develop home-grown recycling facilities and markets (2). Others are pushing for “product stewardship” regulations, which means companies are held responsible for the end of life of their products, by ensuring their packaging is recyclable or returnable, as is the case in Germany.

If any of these strategies are successful, it could result in one of two outcomes for cleaning companies:

  1. It could increase the need for skilled and innovative on-site recycling audits and processing, to remove the types of recyclable material with insufficient markets and all other contamination, or
  2. It may spell the end of source separation and recycling bins as we know it, with all waste being sent to off-site processing plants where separation can be fully controlled.

In the long term, we have a global waste problem that needs to be fixed. No matter how well, or where, we manage recycling, it won’t lead to zero waste.