Newcastle plastic expert on the push for Australia to recycle its own plastic

Sorting Rubbish: Roger Lewis, chief executive of Hunter Resource Recovery, at a plastic sorting centre at Gateshead. Picture: Simone De Peak
Sorting Rubbish: Roger Lewis, chief executive of Hunter Resource Recovery, at a plastic sorting centre at Gateshead. Picture: Simone De Peak

A recycling expert says Australia should be recycling its own plastic waste, rather than sending it to Asia.

The comments come amid concern about the future of kerbside recycling in Australia and plastic pollution in the Pacific.

The Morrison government has vowed to establish a plastic recycling industry in Australia, amid concern about plastic going into landfill or being shipped to Asia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently raised concerns that some of Australia's plastic exported to Asia ends up in rivers and the Pacific Ocean.

He said only 12 per cent of the 103 kilograms of plastic waste generated per person in Australia each year was recycled, mostly overseas.

Malaysia has become an alternative destination for plastic waste after China banned imports of such waste last year.

This led many recycling factories to emerge in Malaysia, some of them illegal.

Some of these factories burnt the plastic that was unsuitable for recycling, releasing toxic chemicals and threatening human health.

The Malaysian government said it had moved to shut the illegal factories.

Roger Lewis is chief executive of Hunter Resource Recovery, which handles recycling for Cessnock, Lake Macquarie, Maitland and Singleton councils in the HUnter region of NSW.

Mr Lewis said plastic collected from the Hunter council areas was mainly sorted at Gateshead.

"The product then goes to Polytrade in Sydney at Enfield where it's separated into categories - there are seven classes of plastics," he said.

"The product is then exported to Malaysia and recycled. Polytrade has two licenced and approved facilities that operate in Malaysia."

He said Polytrade "work closely with the Malaysian government to ensure quality standards".

"The product is inspected by the Malaysian government on import," he said.

Mr Lewis said there were "a number of unauthorised, illegal plastic facilities that are operating through Asia".

As well as Malaysia, such factories had operated in Vietnam and India.

Additionally, the Malaysian government recently raised concerns about contaminated plastic being sent from Western countries, including Australia. This meant it could not be recycled.

The Malaysians vowed to send contaminated waste back to the countries of origin.

Mr Lewis said Hunter Resource Recovery had "never had any containers rejected".

But he believes countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia - following China's stance - are tired of receiving Australia's garbage.

"We would like to see plastic recycled in Australia. We should be doing it ourselves. We fully support a circular economy and the use of recycled products here in Australia," he said.

However, fair trade agreements between Australia and other countries could prove to be a problem.

"It comes down to whether manufacturers - the packaging companies - are prepared to pay more for their raw stock," Mr Lewis said.

Recycling plastic in Australia would "cost four to five times more to produce the same stock" as foreign competitors.

"We would have to compete with the imported product. It's not viable. Our salaries and wages are much higher than in Asia," he said.

"If you're going to ban the export of plastics, you have to also ban the import of plastics."

That aside, he said the "best thing that could happen is consumers look at their buying habits".

"They could stop buying single-use plastics," he said.

He added that synthetic clothing - such as polyesters and nylon - was the cause of most plastic pollution in the ocean.

"Every time you wash your clothes, these microfibres and microplastics end up washing out into the waste stream," he said.

He said the problem in Asia was also complex.

"I've been in most parts of Asia - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia - and you see their waterways are used as garbage tips and disposal points," he said.

"Those countries, while they're looking at restricting the import of plastic, also need to look at what they're doing at home."

He had travelled extensively through Vietnam.

"It's just gobsmacking how people dispose of their waste there. They burn their rubbish on the street or just tip it in the bush or pour it down the river," he said.

"It's so Third World for a country that's trying to advance itself. What they need is a proper waste service."

This story Problems with plastic that can't be ignored first appeared on Newcastle Herald.