China’s recent implementation of a virtual ban on international waste coming into their country marks a turning point in many countries with regards to waste and recycling management. The Asian giant, which has been known to take 49.6million tonnes of rubbish a year, has left countries such as the US, Ireland and Australia, who rely on its waste collection to offload a large portion of its household waste and recyclable plastics, in somewhat of a lurch.

China is no longer accepting international waste imports.

In Australia, state and council governments are scrambling with the new practical problem of waste collection and disposal. Problems for councils involve some recycling contracts being abandoned because recycling companies no longer have guaranteed purchases in China, to recycling companies charging local councils instead of paying them, to have household recyclables taken away. State governments are struggling with recycling companies creating dangerous stockpiles of recyclable material, posing the risk of huge fires like the one that swept the SKM recycling plant in Coolaroo in early July.

The federal government faces the mammoth task of finding a long-term solution to this undeniable waste crisis.

Options available to the government to combat this presiding waste problem vary from region to region and council to council, however, three long-term options seem to be most likely. Those options involve either increasing the quality of our recycling in order to meet China’s imposed standards and continue exporting, investing in onshore recycling infrastructure and waste processing facilities or inciting a cultural change that reduces the usage of single-use plastics and thus the need for recycling altogether. As a result, the campaign against single-use plastics has truly begun.

Soberingly, it is not an environmental incentive that has spurred the government’s desire to eliminate single-use plastics, it is an economic one.

Increasing the quality of our recycling in order to meet China’s new standards would involve a sizeable investment on behalf of the Australian government, and in order to process what we once sent offshore within our own borders, we would need a similarly large investment by the government to build the sophisticated recycling facilities required. Nevertheless, it does little use dwelling on the sobering reality that despite an environmental wasteland being almost certain, politicians remain more motivated by money rather than the future. What matters is that Australia has, for whatever reason, begun to reduce its hand in the global waste and plastic crisis.

From July 1st, Queensland and Western Australia have banned single-use lightweight plastic bags and Victoria announced their phasing out of plastic bags by the end of 2018. This brings the three states into line with Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT, leaving only New South Wales without a proposed ban in sight. This may not remain in their control however as the Senate has recently proposed a nationwide ban on all single-use plastics set for five years time.  

The most recent removal of plastic bags in supermarkets and shopping centres confused and angered shoppers, one of which, upon discovering that he would be made to pay 15 cents for a reusable bag, placed his hands around the neck of a Woolworths employee and throttled her from behind. Coles has just recently started charging 15 cents for its thick recyclable plastic bags after it backed down last month on their original campaign to ban single-use plastic bags in its stores in July due to huge customer pressure.

AAP: Peter Rae

Coles thick recyclable bags (AAP: Peter Rae)

Despite this social pushback, it has no hope of stopping the ban on single-use plastic bags, and seemingly no hope of stopping the push to becoming less single-use plastic dependant. A huge market already exists for reusable alternatives to everyday single-use products, and it has been thrust into the spotlight following Australia’s push to minimise plastic waste. Reusable bread bags, produce bags, bulk bags, shopping bags, coffee cups, sandwich wraps, water bottles and straws have found prominence and prestige in their reusable nature, people now choosing to fork out the money to do their bit in reducing plastic waste.

The future of plastic does, thankfully, look short, however, how far we have still to go shouldn’t be understated. Supermarkets still continue to wrap much of their fresh produce in unnecessary plastic packaging and continue to sell other items swathed in plastic wrapping. Plastic is one of the most present and toxic forms of waste existing on our planet today and, as a consequence, is one of the most pressing environmental issues. Our changes, although significant, are slow off the mark. The world is already drowning in plastic and all perhaps we can hope that it isn’t too little too late.