australia recycling crisis
VICE writer Gavin Butler admires 10,000 tons of recyclable waste at a warehouse in Derrimut, Melbourne. All photos by Ben Thomson
Environmental Extremes

This Is What Australia's Recycling Crisis Looks Like

In 2018 China stopped accepting their recyclable waste. They've been dumping it in landfill and stashing it in warehouses ever since.
16 September 2019, 8:59am

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. Each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for political change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes.

In early 2018 the Chinese Government announced the nation would cease accepting Australia’s recyclables. Nearly a year and a half later, these photos chronicle the result. As our daily output of spent paper, plastic, and glass overwhelms our domestic processing capabilities, recycling companies have resorted to stashing recyclables in warehouses or burying them in landfill, with no long-term solution in sight.

Two and a half years ago embattled Australian recycler SKM filled this Melbourne warehouse with waste. It's been there ever since

You might be wondering why Australia was ever shipping our recycling to China in the first place. Why not just recycle it here? The reason for that is the same reason we outsource so many of our industrial processes to China: it’s cheaper.

Let’s say you’ve just finished a carton of milk. You don’t wash it out; you don’t put it in a separate bin reserved exclusively for cardboard packaging. Instead you throw it in with your “mixed” recycling because you assume someone else, somewhere, separates it all.

What few of us realise is that a wheelie bin of mixed recycling products can’t be recycled without some pretty rigorous pre-processing. You can’t mulch up a vat of paper products while they’re mixed in with cans and plastic bottles. And you can’t melt down a vat of crushed glass while the individual pieces are still covered in shreds of paper labels and adhesive glue and dregs of mayonnaise and wine or whatever else originally came in the bottles. Recycling technology demands that glass, plastic, and paper all gets washed and separated—otherwise it’s non-recyclable garbage.

For this reason, a cubic tonne of mixed Australian recyclables is a low-value product. For Australia’s three big recyclers—SKM, Polytrade, and Visy—recycling isn’t some altruistic hobby motivated by pure environmental concern. It’s a business motivated by profit, and each layer of pre-processing eats into profits. So like everything else, we’ve historically sent the bulk of our mixed recycling to China where labour costs are low, and environmental regulations are lax, so companies can retain a healthy profit margin.

And as we’re all discovering now, trying to recycle everything in Australia isn’t feasible. Firstly because we don’t have the local processing capacity, but secondly because it loses money.

Carly Whitington, project coordinator for Marwood Constructions, the company that owns the warehouse

The result is a huge backlog of recycling that has nowhere to go. And what you’re looking at here is a warehouse full of recycles owned by an Australian recycling company that’s been forced into liquidation. Two and a half years ago this space in Melbourne's suburb of Derrimut was leased by one of the big three recyclers; a company called SKM, who were contracted by multiple city councils around Melbourne. But then China stopped accepting SKM’s raw product, and their business model fell apart.

“It was supposed to be a 12-month lease,” explains Carly Whitington, who is the project co-ordinator for Marwood Constructions, the company that owns the warehouse. “But after 12 months, all they had done was fill it up and locked the doors. That was it. We started wondering what was going on. We were talking with SKM’s management who were saying ‘everything’s OK’ and we were assured it’d be emptied by the end of September, but I don’t think it is going to be emptied by the end of September… just quietly.”

At last tally, in 2016-17, Australia generated an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste. Just over half of that was recycled—which was before China imposed an embargo on our recyclables. It's now unclear how much reusable paper and plastic we're sending to landfill

Carly's prediction is likely to be correct. SKM was last month taken over by liquidators and the company hasn’t paid rent in months, which leaves Carly with a warehouse full of garbage they can’t legally move.

“It’s not our stock,” says Carly. "It belongs to SKM industries, which is still an operating entity so we can’t touch it, even though it’s an environmental and fire risk."

By “fire risk” Carly is referring to the way the recycling in Derrimut includes several thousand tonnes of plastic and paper that’s been indoors, drying for two and a half years. Just a spark would likely torch the lot.

“That’s why there are to be no sparks whatsoever," said Carly without smiling. “We just have to hope that SKM is monitoring the site for heat.”

A small percentage of SKM's waste has been sorted. Here's a pile of plastic waiting for somewhere to go

As it stands there’s no resolution to look forward to. Marwood Constructions has resorted to appealing to media to bring governmental attention to their plight, which is why they gave us access. And as for the recycling, it’ll likely all end up in landfill, once some solution is reached with SKM.

Indeed, there’s a good chance that regardless of where you live in Australia, the bulk of your household’s recyclables are currently being sunk into landfill. Either that or they’re getting stockpiled in a storage facility like this one in Derrimut.

Either way you cut it, the current recycling crisis has revealed just how non-prepared Australia is to deal with its own waste. Our market for single-use packaging is just as strong as ever, but our conscious-cleansing system of recycling was built on outsourcing. And without domestic investment or innovation—or genuine concern for the environment—Australia basically doesn’t have a recycling program.

All photos by Ben Thomson. Follow him on Instagram