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Is Australia a great recycler or a great sorter and exporter?

The volatility of export markets is a key risk for the future of Australian recovery, argues Mike Haywood.

This is not meant to be a cynical crack at any body or even to demean the outstanding work that the resource recovery industry undertakes each year.

The reason I am writing this is to encourage discussion in regards to what happens once we have recovered “the commodity”.

Australians in the main are outstanding at producing products from concrete, bricks and rubble. The majority, if not all states, have concrete crushers and approved specifications for the use of recycled road bases. 

In the main we have very mature markets and processes for green organics and work is well underway in developing processes for the recycling of food organics -with some states quite mature in there relevant market.

We have reduced the volume of pulping mills to only a few that utilise a proportion of the local paper and cardboard we collect the beneficiation of glass is also quite mature.

However - we have quite a small (in relative terms) plastics recycling market while most of our tyres, metals and excess paper and cardboard are exported into Asian countries for processing into a wide range of materials including Process Engineered Fuel (PEF).

With all of the money that various businesses and states are spending on the recovery of resources are we leaving ourselves vulnerable to world commodity prices.

Worse still - what if our trading partners all of a sudden decided that they had enough of their own rubbish to meet their recycling and PEF needs and refused to allow our materials to be imported?

Those of us that were around remember well the panic when the GFC hit and scrap fell from $400 plus per tonne. To nobody wanted our scrap almost overnight - let alone our plastics, tyres, cardboard and paper.

We have already seen that China has banned the import of end-of-life tyres from Australia and that might just expand to other products and other countries.

On a recent trip to China I noted with interest an increase in recycling across the nation. Australians just would not appreciate these volumes unless they see it for themselves.

Nobody wants to be a doomsayer but let’s consider why have allowed our great country to lose its ability to be a recycler rather than just a collector baler and exporter for many products.

Perhaps the money that is being offered by some of the states it would be better spent on establishing reuse facilities rather than just collecting and sorting for export.

With international recycling markets rapidly evolving, I believe we have only a few short years to think this through.

Mike Haywood is a South Australian industry veteran and the director of Mike Haywood Sustainable Resource Solutions.