How Solving Victoria’s Recycling Chaos Could Change The Whole Country
Australians “do the right thing”, separating our paper, tin and plastics. If you’re anything like me, you vaguely imagined it going off to a factory to be cleaned and melted and turned into next month’s newspapers, bean cans, and milk bottles. In reality, only 12 percent of the plastic you throw out is ever recycled — most of it overseas, where waste from Australia is sometimes burned or handled by child workers.
Since 2017, countries like China and Vietnam have refused to take more recyclable waste from Australia. That’s when things started to pile up. Literally.
Major Victorian recycler SKM’s plants were overflowing, reportedly at 150 percent capacity, when the company collapsed earlier this year. That sparked a total breakdown of the recycling system across multiple Victorian council areas.
With nowhere else to go, those yoghurt tubs and Sprite bottles you faithfully put in the yellow bin were dumped into landfill, where they’ll take up to 1000 years to break down. Or, sent to overflowing warehouses in the suburbs, where the waste can catch fire and spew acrid smoke over Melbourne.
This is making people angry and for good reason. Victoria’s recycling crisis is shaping up as a flashpoint for anger over Australia’s neglect of the environment and of blue-collar workers.
Recycling, when done well, is an excellent investment. As well as recovering the resources, recycling an aluminium can uses only 5 percent of the energy it would take to make that same can from scratch.
What’s more, when a country takes responsibility for its own recycling, a whole lot of jobs appear in the sector. At a time when blue-collar jobs are increasingly scarce, the United States recycling industry provides over 160,000 jobs, and indirectly supports another 350,000.
Could Australia do the same? Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews thinks so. She said in a media release, “Boosting our onshore plastic recycling industry has the potential to create over three times as many jobs as exporting our plastic waste.”
The Australian government just pledged 20 million dollars to support onshore recycling. That’s on top of over 10 million from the Victorian government in August.
When a country takes responsibility for its own recycling, a whole lot of jobs appear in the sector.
Some recycling plants in Victoria have tentatively reopened over the past couple of weeks. But Dale Martin, a member of Moreland City Council and founder of Plastic Bag Free Victoria, told me it’s not nearly enough.
“The feds giving 20 mil to the crisis is a bit like your mate chipping in 20 cents after you’ve spent twenty dollars to buy them lunch,” Cr Martin said. “It doesn’t come close to addressing the problem.”
While some point the finger at households for not separating their recycling properly, Cr Martin thinks it’s essentially a governance problem. He wants the government to invest more to solve the current crisis and forestall even worse ideas, like proposals to burn garbage in plants in the suburbs.
In Port Philip, in Melbourne’s south, over 1300 tonnes of recyclables went to landfill during the crisis. Katherine Copsey, a Port Philip councillor, agrees with Cr Martin. “We urgently need more large-scale investment from state and federal governments to expand our local recycling industry so we can process and repurpose resources here at home and also create sustainab[le] jobs.”
Both councillors want to see a move toward a circular economy, where almost all resources are recovered and reused. They said a good first step could be a container refund scheme, which would provide incentives to keep litter out of waterways and off streets and beaches while providing a source of good-quality plastic for recycling. A circular economy would employ a lot of people in collecting, sorting, and processing materials from waste to re-use.
Funnily enough (not), certain interests have tried to make out that the environment and the economy are opposed. Many analysts think that this is what decided the 2019 election.
The #StopAdani movement was stopped in its tracks by claims that the new coalmine would create almost two thousand new jobs, in a region and a sector where they’re desperately needed. With that rhetoric, it’s easy to understand why people are keen for a coal mine in their area.
But, as Dr Alfonso Martínez Arranz, a climate change researcher at RMIT, pointed out on a recent interview for SBS Radio Spanish, that’s not the only story. People need electricity. And whether it’s on a coal plant or a solar farm, generating that electricity takes work. There’s no reason to think that a sustainable economy would employ fewer people than our current unsustainable one – – quite the opposite.
That’s the premise behind the Green New Deal – a 14-page document that’s sparked months’ worth of discussion in the United States. It lays out a plan to transition the US to renewable energy and sustainable manufacturing, farming, and transport, bringing on board millions of workers across multiple sectors.
“In every crisis, there’s an opportunity”
If onshore recycling is ramped up in Australia, a boost in jobs could show this idea in action. And that would be a compelling counterargument to the “Start Adani” story that sets up a false conflict between environmentalism and employment.
Recycling is just the start. Climate action will take, well, action. The UN just dropped the news that planting a whole lot of trees could effectively recapture carbon and slow down climate change, even before global leaders get their shit together and commit to a unified plan to reduce emissions.
A sustainable economy could mean new jobs everywhere, from recycling plants in the suburbs to solar farms in Australia’s sun-soaked but job-starved regional areas.
Cr Copsey concluded, “In every crisis, there’s an opportunity – – the technology is there to solve the waste crisis, and we know our communities want it, now we just need to see the political will.”
Solving the climate crisis is going to mean a whole lot of work. In an economy where there are growing fears about recession, unemployment, extreme weather, and drought, that could be excellent news.