Australia’s Asia Diplomacy in the Recycling Bin

By Melissa Conley-Tyler, Research Fellow, Asia Institute - The University of Melbourne,
and Rose Hawkins, Master of Environment student, The University of Melbourne

Australia’s use and abuse of plastic has affected its relationships in Asia. How has the Morrison Government responded?

Just over a year ago, Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin invited journalists to attend an inspection of shipping containers sent from countries including Australia, the UK and Canada. She gingerly handled contaminated plastic milk bottles sent from Australia and showed them to the crowd. “Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world ... we will fight back,” she declared, ordering that the waste be shipped back.

How did we get here?

Australia’s waste exports have been a source of national embarrassment ever since China stopped accepting recycling waste in 2018. China announced it was tightening regulations on acceptable rates of contamination in its imported recyclable materials, effectively ruling out waste from Australia.

This meant Australia’s waste was redirected to Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, but contaminated waste was no more welcome there. Stories have emerged of Indonesian villages covered in plastic waste, with plastic marked ‘Made in Australia’ being burned on local river banks. Southeast Asian artists began using plastic as a medium to send a clear message: plastic is political.

Wealthy nations have been exporting their waste problems to less developed countries for decades in what has been described as “waste colonialism”. Australia is a party to the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which places limits on wealthy nations shipping waste to developing countries.

In May 2019, just days before Malaysia returned Australia’s waste, the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention adopted amendments requiring that exported plastic waste be “almost free” from contamination and must be recycled in an environmentally sound manner in the receiving country.

Minister Yeo Bee Yin
Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin has criticised Australia's waste export policy. Image credit: SL Chen, Shutterstock.

Australia’s export of low-grade, often contaminated materials is the core issue. Eighty percent of plastics exported in 2018-19 were classified as low-grade mixed plastics, while even paper and cardboard are often contaminated with plastic. As Minister Yeo said, “When you have contaminated plastic as the raw material, nobody can recycle it … [in an] environmentally friendly way.” As a result, much of the material sent overseas has been burnt, even though Australian householders diligently sorted it into the recycling bin at home.

What has Australia done so far?

The rejection of Australian waste by our neighbours in Asia triggered a rapid response from the federal government. Australia launched an updated National Waste Policy in 2018 and a National Waste Policy Action Plan in 2019. Trevor Evans was appointed the first ever Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction in May 2019 and in August the Council of Australian Governments agreed to set a timeline for waste export bans. Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley hosted a National Plastics Summit in March 2020.

For a while these ambitious policies and commitments lacked the reinforcement of meaningful action, but this all changed with the 6 July federal announcement of a new $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund. The ‘$1 billion plan’ is designed to kick-start a nation-wide revamp of Australia’s recycling industry, attracting private investment in local recycling infrastructure but contingent on co-funding by the states and territories.

This move is aligned with a nation-wide ban on exporting mixed plastics which will come into force on 1 July 2021, followed by a ban on unprocessed single resin/polymer waste plastics scheduled for 1 July 2022. Combined with bans on the export of glass, tyres, paper and cardboard, this is intended to deliver a staged reduction of Australia’s waste exports over the next four years. Investing in onshore waste processing will enable Australia to export recycled materials that are ready for manufacturing, rather than sending an unprocessed product overseas.

The scheduled waste export bans were actually due to start this month with a ban on exporting glass waste, but this has been pushed back until 1 January 2021 because of COVID-19 restrictions.

COVID-19 may pose a significant threat to the viability of the government’s new national recycling program, with Australia already in a recession as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 lockdown has caused significant increases in Australia’s household waste. Hygiene requirements have trumped sustainability concerns, triggering renewed dependence on single-use plastics. The global trend is for plastic waste generation to triple by 2060.

Waste management and diplomatic relations: have either improved?

Until the waste export bans come into force, Australia’s waste exports will continue. However, there may be greater caution than before; Australia was not one of the 13 countries to which Malaysia returned a further 150 shipping containers of illegal waste in January.

Through its decisive response to the waste crisis in Asia, the Australian Government has shown that it can be spurred into action on environmental issues to avoid damaging strategic relationships in the region. Alongside rapidly scaling-up its onshore recycling to reduce waste generation it should also work collaboratively with other countries, for example by joining the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Partnership.

With recent overtures from Labor leader Anthony Albanese to Scott Morrison proposing a bipartisan approach to climate change and energy policy, Australia has an opportunity to significantly raise the ambition of its environmental policy in the coming years. To do otherwise risks damage to Australia’s international reputation and losing more environmental credibility internationally.

Australian citizens and the national science agency CSIRO are showing the way by contributing valuable research and expertise to tackle plastic waste in the Asia-Pacific. CSIRO has developed drone technology to track the movement of plastic waste in the Mekong and the Ganges rivers, while Australian social entrepreneurs such as Bottle for Botol encourage a transition away from single-use plastics towards reusable alternatives.

At the end of the day, better management of recycling is only part of the solution. There must be a focus on avoiding plastic waste in the first place.

All of us can start taking simple actions to reduce our plastic use by participating in Plastic Free July. In doing so we won’t just be protecting the environment, we’ll also be helping to improve Australia’s diplomatic relations with Asia.

Melissa Conley Tyler has been Director of Diplomacy at Asialink at The University of Melbourne for the last year. She has recently taken up a new role within the university as Research Fellow at the Asia Institute. She tweets at @MConleytyler.
Rose Hawkins is a Master of Environment student currently interning with Asialink.

Banner image: Kerbside recycling bins, Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Shuang Li, Shutterstock.