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Challenges arising from international policy changes give opportunity locally

China’s National Sword policy and the current “War on Waste” have raised a new awareness of recycling in Australia, which has pushed industry, councils and regional waste groups to improve and strengthen the country’s recycling systems.

Until now, China, as well as many other southeast Asian nations, have been major importers of recyclable materials, accepting more than 30 million tonnes of waste worldwide, including Australia, each year. According to the EPA, Australia alone sent 1.25 million tonnes of recycled material to China in 2016-17.

Today, many of those countries are shutting out global exports of waste, with not just China making the change in January last year. Following in China’s footsteps, in October 2018, the Malaysian government announced it would shut its doors, and India did so in March this year. They will now stop taking Australia’s plastic bottles and other recyclable materials, such as e-waste.

As far as e-waste goes, the 14th Conference of the Parties of the Basel Convention proposed new guidelines in May 2019 for managing electronic and electrical waste, which included an exemption from controls for e-wastes claimed for repair. However, it failed to find the support for its final adoption of the Technical Guidelines on the Transboundary Movement of e-Waste.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) stated that more work is needed to address concerns raised by developing countries that the exemption can be exploited by exporters who discard low-value e-waste by claiming their exports are for repair. This would negate trade controls of the Basel Convention, which indicates that countries need to be notified before receiving such wastes and it provides them with the right of refusal.

BAN, the African Group, India and Sri Lanka called for further work as essential to allow for a rational closure of the loophole to thereby ensure an ethical circular economy.

Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and MobileMuster manager, Spyro Kalos, said the challenges that arise from these policy changes in other international markets should be seen as opportunities to develop markets locally.

“Australia should be able to manage all its waste outputs – shipping it offshore is not always the ideal solution,” Kalos said.

“We need to see greater investment in research and development in Australia, funded by industry and government. This will not only develop industries here, but also create employment opportunities locally.

“There are also opportunities here to educate Australians to be more aware of the impacts that our choices have on the environment. As individuals, we need to get better at sorting our waste to reduce contamination and look at purchase items that are better for the environment,” Kalos said.

To this day, 67 countries have enacted legislations to deal with the e-waste they generate. Apple, Google, Samsung and many other electronics brands have set out ambitious targets for recycling and for the use of renewable materials. These companies have begun looking at the way they package their products to reduce or remove plastics and non-recyclable materials used in their smartphones.

Apple has implemented its Apple Renew program, which is an expanded recycling initiative for old Apple devices that uses recycling robots to take apart more than 1.2 million iPhones in a year and extracts different components to be reused or recycled.

Better product tacking and take-back schemes, which consumers trust, also constitute an important first-step to circular global value-chains. It is about changing the direction of the prevailing linear ‘take, make and dispose’ model as a first-step towards the circular economy. However, this requires bold solutions, expertise, incentives and policies.

Looking locally, new laws on e-waste are being introduced in a bid to protect the environment, while recovering precious resources during the processing phase. The Victorian government is banning all e-waste from landfill from July 1, 2019, meaning e-waste will no longer be accepted in any household bin.

The Victorian government expects the amount of e-waste generated in the state is projected to increase from 109,000 tonnes in 2015, to about 256,000 tonnes in 2035.

East Gippsland Shire Council mayor, Natalie O’Connell, said there’s a better place for e-waste than in a rubbish bin. “It’s much better going to a place where we can recover the precious materials to be reused and capture the nasty bits before they can do harm.

“Electronics are stripped for recyclable components, reducing the amount of material that enters landfill where toxic metals, such as lead and mercury, can remain in the environment,” she said.

Kalos said material used in mobile phones have shifted in the past few years. “More glass and metal casings are being used, which are materials that are highly recyclable. Manufacturers are also looking at using recycled content in new devices. We are already seeing recycled cobalt being used in new mobile phone batteries.

“In the short-term, we need to regain trust in the recycling process, and we should acknowledge the great work already happening in this space locally. In the long-term, I expect that will see greater innovations in material recovery able to recover more value from recycled material.”