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Australia’s recycling lie revealed

9News.com.au logo 9News.com.au 15/04/2019 Liz Little

Two dump trucks at landfill. © Getty Two dump trucks at landfill. A 60 Minutes investigation has revealed that Australia’s attempts to ethically recycle are falling short, causing harm offshore for our international “dumping ground.”

Australia has earned the unfortunate title of one of the world’s most wasteful nations, and as our waste crisis worsened the importance of recycling was drilled into the nation.

We were encouraged to reduce, reuse, recycle, in a desperate bid to clean up the country.

But as 60 Minutes reporter Liam Bartlett revealed, the reality is that much of the public’s efforts to recycle the huge amounts of plastic we consume are often a waste of time.

60 Minutes has tracked mixed plastic waste - the material assumed easiest to salvage and re-use - from the recycling bins of Australian suburbs to dozens of illegal processing sites in Malaysia, where our discarded plastics often end up being dumped, buried or even burned.

It’s turned Malaysia into Australia’s dumping ground, with dire consequences including contamination of drinking water and air pollution.

Despite so many Australians diligently separating plastics from their general waste and placing it in their recycling bins, very little reprocessing of mixed plastic is happening on home soil - with the exception of milk bottles and soft drink bottles which have a discrete market.

Haydn Breheny, who runs a recycling business for industry waste in south-east Melbourne, revealed to 60 Minutes that when plastic arrives at his warehouse, if it can’t be sold to Asian markets then it can’t actually be recycled here in Australia and just ends up in the tip.

“Morally, you want to do something for it,” he told Bartlett.

“But if I can't get rid of it, what am I meant to do? Eat it myself?”

For the last two decades, Australia’s recycling industry has been dependent on China – which had been taking a staggering 125,000 tonnes of our plastic waste every year, sorting it by hand with low labour costs and melting it down into new plastic products to be sold back to us and the rest of the world.

But in January 2018 China effectively closed its doors, citing environmental concerns.

The decision threw the world’s recycling industry into a tailspin as nations, including Australia, scoured the globe for new buyers.

They found them in Southeast Asia, Malaysia in particular, where hundreds of Chinese operators quickly relocated to set up factories, often illegally. These dodgy businessmen then proceeded to buy as much foreign trash as they could get their hands on.

Almost overnight Malaysia overtook China as the world’s largest importer of plastic rubbish. Australia alone has dumped more than 71,000 tonnes of it in just 12 months and it’s helping fuel a criminal underworld in plastic recycling, harming the environment and the people of Malaysia.

Malaysia’s Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin has shut down no less than 150 illegal factories since July last year, but admits her country doesn’t have the resources to properly police the unlawful trade in plastic waste.

“I want to send [plastic waste] all back to the counties of origin,” the Minister said.

“And have to really ask you to solve your own problem.”

Because of this, Malaysia has imposed harsher restrictions on imports and new permits.

The Minister warned 60 Minutes it’s only the beginning – Malaysia’s doors will soon close on Australian rubbish for good.

“I do not blame ordinary Australians,” she told Bartlett.

“I think most of the people do not know this is happening. But, now we know that this is happening, we need the solution.”

Pictures: You Should Never Recycle These Items (House Beautiful)

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