In July 2017 China, until then the world’s largest importer of trash, announced it would no longer accept 24 types of solid waste
from foreign countries.
The decision caused chaos in international recycling markets.
The following month a damning Four Corners investigation
revealed that with commodity prices for recycled glass and plastic collapsing, waste companies were not only exploiting legislative gaps by moving waste interstate to avoid paying landfill fees, but also engaging in illegal dumping and burning. Worse still, some regulatory bodies tasked with policing illegal dumping were corrupt.
But nothing is more likely to make this federal government drag its heels than a protracted crisis.
Climate change, yawning inequality, health costs, infrastructure, housing affordability – if it’s a pressing issue requiring urgent action you can be sure they’ll do nothing about it. (But watch how fast they’ll move to protect the church’s right to discriminate
against LGBTQI people!)
Why the inaction? Because fixing problems like these requires systemic overhaul, which demands an acknowledgement, even tacitly, that the profiteering of the neoliberal era – in this case entrusting the ethical handling of humanity’s toxic byproducts to a private sector rife with crime and bad actors
– has left the majority of people, and the planet, far worse off.
In other words, they would need to admit that the economic philosophy that beats at the very heart of the modern conservative movement is an unmitigated failure. And admitting that means political surrender and electoral death.
No time to waste
As the crisis grew, one of Australia’s biggest recyclers, SKM, whose waste stockpile in north Melbourne went up in flames
in 2017, shut its doors, leaving more than 30 Victorian councils in the lurch.
With a beloved member of the family of Australian job creators under threat, Scott Morrison finally leapt into action, agreeing with state and territory leaders
at the COAG meeting in Cairns earlier this month to build “Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities” and “maximise the capability of our waste management and recycling sector”. He backed that up with $20 million in grants
Fine words, but also kind of beside the point.
The problem is not our recycling and waste management sector per se. It’s not commodity prices or the difficult Chinese. It’s the vast quantities of waste we produce in the first place.
That Four Corners
report highlighted not only the failings of the recycling industry, but just how much of the byproduct of our insatiable overconsumption
has been hidden from us, packed into crates and shipped to countries too poor to say no.
Australia produced 67 million tons of waste in 2016-17, or 2700 kg per person
. OECD countries – rich countries, in other words – produce almost half of the world’s municipal solid waste
, and Australia is one of the worst offenders in that lot.
And according to a measure of resource consumption by Earth Overshoot Day
, Australia this year exhausted its theoretical annual allocation of global resources on March 31.
In other words, if everyone on the planet consumed ecological resources at the rate Australians do, we’d need four Earths.
And that’s a problem even the most skilfully crafted COAG statement is unlikely to fix.