SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will invest in trash-burning incinerators and aim for all packaging to be 100 percent recycled by 2025 after China, which took one third of the country’s rubbish, banned waste imports, its environment minister said on Friday.
The Chinese ban from March 1 affects 1.25 million tonnes of Australian waste, worth an estimated A$850 million ($640 million), according to government-commissioned research by consultancy Blue Environment.
Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said he had directed government funding bodies to “prioritise” waste-to-energy projects, which include incinerators and landfill gas harvesting.
“Obviously we’d like to see waste reused or recycled, primarily, but waste-to-energy is a legitimate source of generation,” Frydenberg told reporters in Melbourne.
Recycling is a A$5 billion industry in Australia, according to research firm IBISWorld.
In Australia about 30 waste-to-energy projects are operational, mostly confined to small incinerators and co-generation plants, though a handful of larger projects are on the drawing board. A public backlash due to pollution fears saw a major project in Sydney stall in 2018.
China, the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste, has stopped accepting shipments of rubbish, such as plastic and paper, as part of a campaign against “foreign garbage”.
The ban has upended the world’s waste handling supply chain and caused massive pile-ups of trash from Asia to Europe, as exporters struggled to find new buyers for the garbage.
Governments in Britain and the European Union have focused on boosting recycling rates in response to the Chinese ban, the British introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and the EU mulling a plastic tax.
Other countries have found new destinations for export, with New Zealand’s waste shipments to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand surging as exports to China plunged, according to Statistics New Zealand.
“Some stock is moving, the material that’s clean has been exported, but at much lower prices than it was when China was buying,” said Max Spedding, convener of Australia’s National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.
The rest is being stockpiled, he said.
Technology to generate electricity from waste has existed since the 1970s and is widely used in Japan, Germany, Scandinavian countries and the United States – where it also generates worry about stench and the risk of toxic emissions.
Typically, such plants produce modest amounts of electricity but divert considerable waste from landfill.
“When a product can be recycled, recycling is going to be better than any form of energy recovery, particularly incineration,” said Jenni Downes, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures division.
($1 = 1.3259 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY. Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in WELLINGTON; Editing by Michael Perry