Protecting recycling – how should we prioritise action in the face of National Sword?

By Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group

Mike RitchieThe introduction of National Sword restrictions on the import of recyclables to China has permitted some commentators to call for recyclables to be used in Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities. Several have proposed EfW as a solution for plastic, paper and cardboard.

While EfW is higher up the waste hierarchy and beneficial over landfill (it recovers the full energy value), I caution against this line of argument.

Arguing for the thermal treatment of recyclables seems to me to undermine the legitimate effort to build an EfW sector to recover energy from residual waste. EfW should be focussed on residual waste. By this I mean waste that has no other higher value or purpose.

Arguing to thermally treat recyclables simply gives opponents of EfW legitimate grounds for criticism. It confirms the opponents’ suspicions that EfW will eventually undermine recycling by burning recyclables.

It is worth remembering that, even with China National Sword, recyclables have ongoing markets and value. All that has changed is that the price paid for recyclables has dropped.

Which raises a real public policy question.

Which materials in our waste streams should be eligible for EfW? How hard should policymakers push to ensure EfW does not lead to the loss of valuable recyclables?

For example, 33% by weight of all available recyclables in NSW are still in the garbage bin (on average). Should this be allowed to go to EfW?

Most of the food and garden waste is still in the garbage bin. Should this be allowed to go to EfW?

This matters because collection infrastructure is designed to achieve particular separation objectives. Our current infrastructure (particularly household and commercial bin systems) prioritises the recovery of dry recyclables (95% of Australian households). About 50% of households have access to garden waste recycling, and less than 5% have access to food waste recycling.

The NSW government has set minimum diversion rates before waste may be used in EfW facilities. The WA government has stated a strong preference for a 3 bin system prior to EfW. Victoria and SA have prioritised recovery. QLD does not have a policy statement.

It seems to me that, as a minimum, Australia should adopt a 3 bin system including Food Organics unless there is a justifiable reason not to. Reasons not to pursue a 3 bin FOGO system could include distances, costs, lack of recovery, predominance of Multi Unit Developments etc.

A final comment. If we are going to specify minimum recovery rates that apply to the supply chain feeding EfW facilities, then there is a strong argument the same should apply to landfills.

Being consistent in our approach to EfW and landfill would level the playing field for both technologies. It would ensure neither becomes a final destination for recyclables.

And it would reinforce opportunities for innovation and investment in materials recovery and reprocessing, unleashing the trebling of jobs available in recycling when compared with landfill.

As always, I welcome your feedback on this, or any other topic on ‘The Tipping Point