Container deposit scheme programs have been heralded as environmental saviours, but they hide a secret shame: recyclers are struggling to process the country’s plastic and glass, with much of the recycling waste heading to landfill in Australia and overseas.
The schemes are aimed at reducing litter, they simply collect bottles and cans and pass them on to recycling centres. They ensure less contaminated waste is sent to recyclers, but their purpose is not to solve what has been labelled Australia’s “recycling crisis”.
Australia only has the infrastructure in place to recycle a small fraction of its waste. Most of the rest was sent to China until it stopped accepting recycling waste over a year ago.
Australia then turned to Malaysia and Thailand to take the waste, but those countries have announced a ban on plastic waste imports by 2021 and India completely banned plastic waste imports earlier this month.
There is growing disquiet that State governments have put the cart before the horse by spending hundreds of millions to introduce the container deposit schemes before they’ve ensured effective on-shore recycling programs are in place.
South Australia has a long-running CDS scheme, NSW introduced one in 2017, Queensland commenced one in November (above), Western Australia will roll one out for 2020.
Under the Return and Earn scheme, NSW consumers are being charged up to 15c more for each drink they buy. They can recover a 10c deposit if they take the empty containers, in good condition, to a series of collection points.
However, data shows that in the year to December, NSW consumers paid about $250million through higher prices to fund the scheme, but claimed just $100million in deposit refunds, while overall recycling rates remained largely unchanged.
Last night, 60 Minutes explored the growing recycling crisis. It showed that struggling recyclers and dozens of councils around Australia have been forced to send material to landfill.
It also showed the harrowing mountains of Australian waste piling up in Asia.
Plastic Forests founder and owner David Hodge told 60 Minutes there had been a shocking lack of planning in Australia.
We haven’t built the infrastructure. We haven’t thought ahead,” he said. “Now we’re here and we’re drowning in plastic.”
Gayle Sloan, chief executive of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) officer told ABC News last month that since China stopped accepting Australian waste, the Federal Government has “done nothing”.
“We’ve had meetings, we had more meetings, and then we’ve had more talk, and we had no action,” she said.
She said the Federal Government can’t afford to take a hands-off approach and leave regulation to the states.
“We need a national Government that pulls all the players together from a regulatory, commercial and investment point of view.”
Sloan has called for immediate action to create a circular economy for waste in Australia.
She told a waste summit last month, organised by the peak body of NSW’s local councils: “We are not going circular. We’re not going anywhere, except chasing our tails, unless we have policy settings and markets and manufacturing equipment and companies that we can actually move the product through to.”
In a statement, the Environment Minister Melissa Price said the Government has been preparing a National Action Plan.
The Minister cited the Environment Restoration Fund announced in the budget, which will spend $100 million to provide national leadership on long-term environmental issues including waste and recycling and $22 million to support local community action.
However, the recycling industry does not see these measures as helping develop a circular economy to effectively address the 1.2 million tonne surplus of waste in Australia.
The Federal Labor government has vowed to invest $60 million in a national recycling fund, impose a national ban on microbeads and single-use plastic bags within two years and create a national container deposit scheme in a bid to address the escalating waste crisis.
Labor wants to establish a national waste commissioner and set mandatory targets for all government departments to purchase products made out of recycled materials.
This would include all major roads funded by the Federal government containing recycled products.