Making sure there is no rubbish mixed in with the recycling has become critically important in the face of shrinking international markets for used plastic and paper. Christchurch City Council Head of Three Waters and Waste Helen Beaumont explains why.
Now, more than ever, we need to people to be vigilant with their recycling.
We are trying to sell our plastics and paper into crowded market places. Unless the product we are offering is gold-star standard, our overseas buyers won’t even entertain dealing with us.
The stark reality is that they can afford to pick and choose who they buy from. Recycling companies around the globe are all knocking on their doors, asking them to take their materials.
China used to receive much of the world’s recycling but in an attempt to clean up the country’s environment, the Chinese government announced in 2018 that it would no longer allow the importing of 24 different recyclable materials and quality standards for accepted materials would increase dramatically.
This has led to a huge knock-on effect around the world. Some new markets have opened up in other Southeast Asian countries but these markets are much smaller in scale. The result is a worldwide glut of recyclable material.
Consequently the value of recyclable materials has plummeted and some materials are nearly impossible to send anywhere for recycling. The markets for mixed paper and plastics have been particularly hard hit.
Traditionally we have sold most of the paper collected through the yellow recycling bins to markets in Asia, but these markets are now seeing an oversupply of product. We have buyers for our mixed paper for the next three months but nothing is guaranteed past this period.
Fortunately, we still have buyers who are willing to buy the high-grade plastics – those plastics numbered 1, 2 and 5. These plastics can be easily recycled and turned into other useful products, both here and offshore.
Our buyers have a very low threshold for contamination – they’re not interested in taking our plastic waste if it is tainted with other material that is costly to remove. That is why we are pushing hard to ensure only the right stuff ends up in the yellow bin.
Soft plastics and plastic items that have a number 3, 4, 6 or 7 printed on them need to go in the red bin because they are hard to recycle and there is no viable market for them. Those plastics, along with the general rubbish people put in their red bin, will end up at the landfill.
That is not ideal, from either an environmental or a financial perspective.
If you crunch the numbers, the cost to send a tonne of waste to landfill is still $80 to $90 per tonne more than the current cost for recycling – including collecting, sorting and shipping for processing. So, even with commodity prices for recyclables as low as they are, it costs significantly less to recycle these plastics than it would cost to dispose of them at landfill.
As it currently stands our kerbside rubbish, organics and recycling collection service costs about $40 million a year to run. The money for that service comes from your rates.
If we lose access to recycling markets and end up having to send more material to landfill, then the costs of the kerbside collection service will inevitably rise, particularly if the Government proceeds with its proposal to increase the landfill levy.
Last year we picked up about 133,000 tonnes of rubbish, garden waste and unwanted materials through our kerbside rubbish and recycling collection service.
Only about a third of that material ended up in the landfill. The rest was either sorted and recycled through the Materials Recovery Facility in Parkhouse Road (35,000 tonnes) or sent to the organics processing plant in Bromley (53,000 tonnes) where it was turned into compost.
We don’t want to see the proportion of material going to landfill increasing. Indeed, we want to see less material going to landfill.
But whether we can achieve that, will depend partly on our community and how good we are at putting the right stuff in the right bin – currently around one third of our kerbside recycling is going to landfill.
It will also depend on how successful we are in finding, or creating, new sustainable, long-term local solutions to dealing with our waste.
We cannot rely on other countries to help solve our waste problem. It is critical that we reduce our reliance on volatile overseas markets and look instead at innovative ways of recycling products locally. This way we can move towards creating a circular economy and eliminate waste.
We are working closely on this with neighbouring territorial authorities but finding a local solution is going to take time.
We need your help.
Many of you are already taking action to reduce your waste and are gold-star recyclers, and we need more people to get on board. Recycling is an easy way to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills, and it’s essential that we all take the time to do it right.
Remember, too, that the choices you make when you shop are powerful when it comes to cutting waste. Try and opt for items with the least amount of packaging, or packaging that can be recycled.
By acting collectively, we can make a difference.