Author: Alex Lavelle
Posted on: The Age | May 4th, 2018
The growing crisis is an opportunity to minimise waste by reusing materials and reducing the excessive and needless packaging of products. Consumers can help drive this by using the growing number of retailers who provide goods that can be put into containers that purchasers bring on their shopping trips.
Regulation can help create rational demand for businesses and communities to profit from recycling; abundant evidence shows that when costs are externalised to the wider community, producers have no incentive to minimise pollution.
Europe is a guide. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union recently created a market incentive by signalling that by 2025, 55 per cent of municipal waste must be recycled, a level that will rise to 60 per cent in 2030 and to 65 per cent a decade later. About a third of Europe’s household waste is currently recycled. A pivotal part of the policy is that no more than 10 per cent of the waste can go to landfill by 2035.
This stimulates reprocessing of waste into new products. In a world of finite resources and expanding population, it is against the public interest to dump recyclables in landfill.
Similar policies have stimulated innovations, for example, to cut lead from petrol. Mandatory caps create markets – which is why, for example, carbon emission reduction targets have helped alternative energy sources become so competitive so quickly.
Venice and other cities generate electricity by reusing waste as fuel for power plants. The EU is generating a profit incentive to use as fuel waste that cannot be otherwise reprocessed. It’s all about encouraging what is being called a ‘‘circular economy’’.
Here in Australia, the extent of the problem, and thus the opportunity, is staggering. On average, each Australian resident generates close to three tonnes of waste each year. About 60 per cent of that is recyclable. China was taking as much as 70 per cent of our discarded plastic, cardboard and paper.
It made mutual sense; it subsidised our waste management and gave Chinese ships that had poured manufactured goods into our economy a valuable load for the return journey. But China is dealing with its own pollution pressures, and has ceased its role as the world’s biggest dump. This has cut the market price of scrap cardboard by 40 per cent and that of plastic by more than 70 per cent. Scrap paper has become worthless.
That does not necessarily mean public subsidies will be required in the long term. After China’s abrupt change in policy, Australian state governments supplied emergency funding to recycling firms. But that is not the best solution in the long run, for it does nothing to motivate people to minimise waste and to reuse materials. The Victorian government rightly allocated no extra money to the cause in its recent budget.
Two powerful maxims are in play: waste not, want not; and necessity is the mother of invention.