Priorities 2022: plastics, paper & metals

The waste and resource recovery sector continues to respond to and drive progress, despite the challenges of living with COVID-19, says National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO Rose Read.

In 2021, waste was collected and handled in a timely and responsible manner, infrastructure was upgraded and new facilities were built to recover more glass, plastics, tyres and paper onshore as the waste export bans were rolled out.

Rose Read, Chief Executive Officer National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, says off the back of the Federal Government’s 2020 policy initiatives, matching state and territory funding allocations and legislative reforms, the waste and recycling industry made 2021 a foundational year for supplying recovered resources to the packaging, manufacturing and infrastructure sectors and developing alternative energy sources.

Australia has also seen increased government and industry investment to divert food and organic waste from landfill, formalisation of the legal framework for container deposit schemes in Tasmania and Victoria, development of new product stewardship initiatives, growing government procurement of recycled content, the gradual phasing out of problematic and unnecessary plastics, and momentum build in the energy recovery sector across the country.

“For NWRIC, our 2021 priorities were to actively promote policies and initiatives that would build the resource recovery sector, prevent waste crime and foster greater collaboration between national and state industry associations,” Rose says.

“This has included working with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) to recommend a set of national recovered resource specifications for sorters, processors and end users to increase the quality and quantity of recovered plastic, paper, glass, metal and organics from the household collection stream.”

NWRIC has also advocated for a ban on the export of unprocessed scrap metal that can contain up to 30 per cent of non-metal wastes and will continue to work with the Australian Steel Institute in shoring up Australia’s vital domestic scrap metal and steel industries in 2022.

“The roll out of the glass, mixed plastics and tyre waste export permit system in 2021 has been a testing time but the government has worked closely with the industry in smoothing this transition,” Rose says. “There have been challenges for companies in getting permits approved in a timely manner which has been further complicated by delays in building additional sorting capacity for mixed plastics. These delays have placed significant short-term financial and stock management challenges on companies.”

NWRIC is particularly concerned this pressure will continue in 2022 due to the lack of sufficient plastic processing capacity coming online by 1 July 2022 when the second phase of the waste plastic export ban is introduced.

“Looking at what plastic projects are currently supported by the Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF), it is unclear if there will be sufficient capacity to process the 50,000 tonnes of baled plastic (predominately PET, HDPE, LDPE) that was exported in 2020-21,” Rose says.

She says the volume of plastic would conservatively be valued around $15.5 million, based on the total plastics export value of $40.4 million in 2020-21 as reported by Blue Environment.

“This is a significant loss of legitimate export revenue for Australia if the baled plastics can’t be processed commercially in country.”

NWRIC is also concerned about the impacts of the waste mixed paper export ban, scheduled for 1 July 2024, on the resource recovery sector.

Australia exported 1046 kilotonnes of paper and cardboard in 2020-21 at an estimated value of $210 million. About 444,000 tonnes, or 42 per cent, will be affected by the export ban.

The total annual capacity of paper projects funded under the RMF is 396,000 tonnes, leaving a shortfall of 48,000 tonnes – a value of about $10 million in export revenue based on 2020-21 figures by Blue Environment.

Rose says this shortfall in domestic capacity, combined with a lack of competition in the domestic market, a lack of capacity in existing facilities, rigidity in existing contracts and a two to six year time frame to establish these facilities, as reported by the Centre for International Economics, puts many recycling facilities at financial risk.

“To avoid a potential collapse in Australia’s paper and cardboard recycling markets, the Federal Government must circulate the draft rules for the export of waste paper and cardboard by March 2022 so industry and governments can ensure appropriate infrastructure will be in place,” she says. “Similarly, federal and state governments need to urgently map out, by polymer type, the current and future processing capacity to ensure producers of baled HDPE, PET and LDPE have commercially viable onshore markets.

“They also need to create more domestic markets for these materials by mandating the use of recovered resources in products, packaging and infrastructure projects.”

Rose says government initiatives such as Re-Made (national), Ecologic (Victoria) and Roads to Reuse (Western Australia) are good first steps. However, local councils, manufacturers and construction need to be incentivised to use recycled content through rebates, tax or carbon credits, or penalised like the virgin plastics tax in Europe.

“The industry is moving into a critical year for building the resource recovery sector. There is a real opportunity to double the $2.9 billion worth of materials currently returned into productive circulation each year.

“NWRIC will continue to advocate for initiatives to build our resource recovery sector, prevent waste crime and work with government as we progress to a circular economy.”


This article was first published in Waste Management Review on 10 February 2022.