The sudden realisation our conscientious separation of recyclable paper and plastics from our rubbish will not be enough to fend off a garbage crisis has Sydneysiders demanding governments step in and reform an industry hit hard by a new Chinese embargo on waste imports.
Ahead of a meeting of the nation's environment ministers on Friday, new polling has found 89 per cent of people support governments "taking more action to create a sustainable recycling industry" and 69 per cent are in favour of a user-pays approach, with discounts for households that reduce their rubbish and improve recycling quality. Support for action was highest in NSW, at 90 per cent.
The poll, conducted for the Australian Council of Recycling by Crosby Textor, shows the unusually emphatic support is spread across political affiliations, states and age groups, with strong backing also expressed for specific proposals to make Australia a "circular economy" that has a greater capacity to deal with its own waste rather than exporting it.
"It’s time to transform recycling," said Pete Shmigel, chief executive of ACOR. "We need a real plan that basically invests in infrastructure, improvements and innovation."
Jo Taranto from North Ryde is a "passionate recycler" who has already made cost savings by using cloth nappies she washes herself and downsizing her household’s "red-lid" bin last year from 140 litres to 80 litres as part of a City of Ryde program to cut waste.
“You have to be very passionate and also a bit anti-establishment in a way,” she said. “It’s a full-time vocation and not many people have the time, energy or commitment to make that possible.”
Ms Taranto, who also campaigns for people and businesses on Sydney’s north shore to avoid disposable coffee cups, plastic bags, bottled water and straws as well as understanding what happens to their waste, said the government should encourage the development of a local recycling industry rather than export Australia's waste problems to other countries.
“If there’s a good thing to come out of this crisis with China, it’s actually making people ask where their waste is going and what is being done with it,” she said.
The survey of 1000 voters, with a 3.1 per cent margin of error, found 91 per cent support for a national plan to make the economy more based on recycling than waste disposal, 89 per cent support for a government procurement policy that favours recycled materials, and 88 per cent support for making it compulsory for recycled material to be used in packaging.
But there was less enthusiasm for initiatives that would directly hit household budgets, with 51 per cent of respondents opposed to increased council rates to fund a sustainable recycling industry, compared to 42 per cent support.
Yaron Finkelstein, chief executive of Crosby Textor, said: "You don't often see very high figures of overwhelming support for policy changes like we have on this issue."
Mr Shmigel said people wanted responsibility to be shared with the sector.
"They are willing to contribute to recycling to some degree through council rates but they also want to see others, like producers, make a contribution as well," he said.
ACOR, the Waste Management Association of Australia and green group the Boomerang Alliance are urging governments to implement a circular economy action plan, prioritise recycled materials in projects, legislate a requirement for recycled materials to be used in packaging and investment in more advanced technology that can process more contaminated and complex material.
"They have a challenge for them on Friday: to come away with a plan," Mr Shmigel said.
Jeff Angel, director of the Boomerang Alliance, said the recycling industry is worth $15.5 billion, employs 50,000 people and delivers significant environmental benefits.
"We call on environment ministers to work together to deliver what we know the public wants – more and better recycling and major domestic market development,” he said.
Historically, a significant proportion of Australia's recyclable material has been exported to China for processing. China's decision to ban imports of low quality and highly contaminated waste has thrown Australia's processes into chaos and caused a glut of material that is being stockpiled and in some cases sent to landfill.
The NSW and Victorian governments have responded with emergency funding to help councils, but industry and environmental groups are calling for governments to urgently agree on a long-term plan.
The Greens have outlined their strategy, which would also invest in the industry and prioritise recycled material in government procurement as well as compelling manufacturers to produce recyclable products through a product stewardship scheme.