Recycling contracts in Australia are under threat and a crisis is looming after China implemented its National Sword policy on January 1 which restricts the import of 24 categories of solid waste.

There are numerous media reports circulating about how the restrictions have now started to impact the sector, including waste being stockpiled and at least one recycler putting a halt to processing.

China made it clear in July last year that it was planning to reduce the imports of these materials and had, over the last six months, incrementally implemented its National Sword policy. This policy is in fact an extension of the country's Green Fence program which has, over the years, made import standards more stringent.

The industry hasn't sat on its hands, warning governments year after year of not only the potential impacts of China's moves but the need to improve and enhance local processing, as Waste Management Association of Australia CEO Gayle Sloan emphasised on Channel 10's The Project this week.

Now, industry associations are calling on the government to address the issues as a priority or risk recycling contracts across the country defaulting.

The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) warned that without significant market changes, kerbside and commercial recycling contracts could be cancelled. This includes the collection and recycling of paper, mixed plastics and some metal products.

The Council proposed preliminary solutions which may assist, including:

  • The renegotiation of contracts between local governments and recycling providers to improve risk sharing and lower contamination.
  • Increasing stockpiling allowances where environmentally safe.
  • Commonwealth assistance to open new export markets.

The best long-term solution to the challenge, NWRIC said, is the reinvigoration of domestic re-manufacturing capacity.  

"The NWRIC is urging all customers, including local government and commercial waste generators, to meet with their recycling supplier to plan for these sudden and unforeseen changes," said Phil Richards, chairman of the NWRIC.

Meanwhile, the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of NSW (WCRA) attended a meeting convened by the NSW EPA to discuss the problems and risks associated with this recycling crisis.

"On behalf of members, WCRA made it very clear to the NSW EPA that suitable urgent intervention will be required by the NSW Government," WCRA executive director Tony Khoury said.

"I have today (February 9) accepted an invitation to participate in an EPA lead steering committee to work on the likely impacts and the short -term contingencies that will need to be put in place."

Khoury also warned that recyclers of domestic and commercial waste will soon encounter difficulties with the recycling options for dry co-mingled recyclables, but urged businesses to stay the course.

"Please remember the significant investment that we all have in recycling. We cannot afford to get this wrong, nor should we be sending any mixed messages to the community about recycling as we do not want to potentially undermine 28 years of efforts and success in promoting the bin with the yellow lid," Khoury said.