A year on from the start of China’s National Sword policy, recycling industries and governments across the world are still adjusting to the new and rapidly changing market conditions. Policies are also evolving: by early 2019, China will prohibit the import of low-grade copper scrap (specifically small motors and insulated wires), and it has signaled its intention to ban the import of all solid waste by 2020. While many in the recycling industry have been holding out hope for a policy reversal, it is unlikely that the industry will ever be able to go back to business as usual.
As other key countries in South-East Asia follow suit with their own waste import bans, Australia (along with the EU, North America, and other developed nations) is under significant pressure to develop its own materials processing capacity, or at least improve material sorting and quality, and reduce contamination levels. While household recyclables were the main focus for state government support in 2018, e-waste has been designated as a priority stream for funding in NSW, and Victoria’s e-waste ban which comes into force in July will likely drive further opportunities for investment in the sector.
The next few years are likely to be challenging for recyclers as downstream supply chains reorganise and regulatory risks remain uncertain. However, as stated by the European Electronics Recycling Association last year, this is an opportunity for the transition to a circular economy, and Australia is no exception. The combined effect of the National Sword and greater public awareness of waste issues (in part thanks to the ABC’s War on Waste) is creating an environment which can drive much-needed innovation in the resource recovery sector, for example:
- The microfactory recycling model, which uses innovative methods to maximise value recovery from waste without relying on economies of scale;
- Low-energy and low-impact metal recovery and purification (e.g. low temperature methods such as environmentally friendly hydrometallurgy, or biohydrometallurgy);
- Development of automated and robotic dismantling and sorting techniques, driven by exponential growth in AI technologies.
As the only not-for-profit, industry-for-industry Co-regulatory Arrangement operating under the NTCRS, ANZRP is in constant discussions with businesses at the forefront of such technological development. We are also formally advocating for Government to assist in the development of downstream markets within the country, so that Australia can reap the environmental and economic rewards of keeping materials in a closed manufacturing loop.
China’s decision is the consequence of market failure and prolonged unsustainable business practice; however, with strong leadership, government support, and innovation across the supply chain – both upstream and downstream – the waste sector can evolve and develop into a more resilient and more sustainable industry.
Dr Rob Hewlett, Program Assistant