Recycling Woes: Indonesia Sends Waste Shipment Back to Australia

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Indonesia this week became the latest Asian country to reject – and return – a shipment of waste sent to it for recycling.

As the Guardian reports in Indonesia sends rubbish back to Australia and says it’s too contaminated to recycle:

Indonesia says it will send eight containers of household rubbish back to Australia after inspectors declared the material too contaminated to be recycled.

It is the latest in a series of announcements by south-east Asian nations that they will not be dumping grounds for overseas waste.

Indonesian customs officials said the containers of paper from Australia were contaminated by electronic waste, used cans, plastic bottles, old bottles of engine oil and loose shoes. Some of this was deemed “B3”, an abbreviation of “bahan berbahaya dan beracun”, which refers to toxic and hazardous material.

Opening the containers up for the press on Tuesday morning, gloved customs officials held up examples of the offending material, including used nappies and soft drink cans.

Speaking at Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, customs officials said eight containers holding 210.3 tonnes of waste would be returned.

The worldwide market for recyclables was upended in 2017, when China – previously the destination for many waste imports, including plastics – announced it would no longer accept such shipments for recycling. Initially, Southeast Asian countries took up the slack and accepted these imports  (see Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia). But the volume of such material eventually overwhelmed the ability of these countries to process the waste, and they have more recently reversed course and rejected some shipments, thus in some instances returning waste to its country of origin, according to this post by Kate O’Neill, As Developing Countries Reject Plastic Waste Exports, Wealthy Nations Seek Solutions:

On May 28, 2019, Malaysia’s environment minister announced that the country was sending 3,000 metric tons of contaminated plastic wastes back to their countries of origin, including the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Along with the Philippines, which is sending 2,400 tons of illegally exported trash back to Canada, Malaysia’s stance highlights how controversial the global trade in plastic scrap has become.

Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are all halting flows of plastics that once went to China but were diverted elsewhere after China started refusing it. They are finding support from many nations that are concerned about waste dumping and marine plastic pollution. At a meeting in Geneva in May 2019, 186 countries agreed to dramatically restrict international trade in scrap plastics to prevent plastics dumping.

The ten countries that participated at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok earlier this month adopted a declaration on combating marine debris, according to ASEAN commit to eliminating marine plastic. But the countries stopped well short of adopting a blanket ban on plastics and e-waste imports – disappointing activists, according to Scrap Collector: Southeast Asian activists call for ASEAN ban on foreign waste imports.

US Recycling Policies in Disarray

Waste Management in the US largely occurs at the local or state level. These policies are thrown into chaos when China imposed its ban – as the US lacks sufficient domestic capacity to process the recyclables it generates.

A quick scan of recent headlines on the Waste Dive site yields a hodge podge of current initiatives.

Some cities, such as Boston, are unrolling or updating comprehensive plans – with cost considerations a significant limiting factor to conditions. Boston is one of the few places attempting to implement textile recycling (see Boston casts wide net for organics options, including in-sink).

Michigan is betting on encouraging people to practice better recycling as being a sufficient soltiion – when far more ambitious policies are necessary, such as drastic reduction in waste generation in the first instance (as I’ve previously written). According to Michigan launches statewide educational campaign on recycling:

The recycling industry is undergoing a period of flux. Contamination concerns and loss or reduction of markets are taking a center stage, leading many cities to reconfigure the materials accepted in their curbside programs.

With those changes come consumer confusion, and communities fighting to save their programs have accordingly implemented educational initiatives around proper recycling — including one campaign launched last week in Michigan.

The new “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) aims to educate citizens throughout Michigan on proper recycling. It’s Michigan’s first statewide campaign — a unique approach, considering recycling education campaigns generally target just one city or metro area.

“We thought it best to have a cohesive approach to inspire collective action statewide,” Jill Greenburg, public information officer for EGLE, told Waste Dive.

I know these people are well-meaning, but this is really pitiful:

The state’s goal is to double its current 15% annual recycling rate to 30% by 2025, eventually reaching 45%. The clean recycling campaign improves the chances of doing that, Greenburg said.

Lexington, Kentucky, is flummoxed by collapsing prices for many recyclables Lexington, Kentucky mayor calls for revamp of ‘sputtering’ recycling program – and is considering whether further privatization is the answer. Strikes me that when in a hole, stop digging might be good advice. If a market-based approach isn’t working – less rather than more resort to markets seems to be blindingly obvious. Especially as Lexington has journeyed less far than others down the primrose privatization path  and continues to operate its own municipal recycling facility – a situation that is somewhat unusual in the US.

Moving westward, Oregon’s governor signed an etiolated ban on plastic bags and straws into law (see Oregon governor signs laws banning plastic bags, straws). If this is at the best a blue state like Oregon can come up with, the situation is more dire than I’d like to admit. And a further cause for pessimism: the state Senate rejected a ban on polystyrene food containers (see Oregon Senate rejects statewide polystyrene foam container ban ). The first person who explained to me what a menace these containers were was my high school English teacher, Mr. Gordon Muir – way back in the late 1970s. Here, now, in 2019, they’re still legal in the great state of Oregon.

Previously, Oregon shipped many of its recyclables to China and was one state affected earlier and heavily by the recycling imports ban. Now,it’s well understood that there’s a need for domestic capacity, according to Oregon communities reach agreement with Waste Connections to revive recycling:

“Where we seem to be heading is domestic capacity for reprocessing,” he said. “The approach we have now is skewed towards urban environments, and it’s harder to pursue that approach here.”

Despite discussions of investment in new facilities, domestic processing options in the west are more limited than in other parts of the country. This has compounded challenges faced by small communities in Oregon.

“It’d be nice to get some markets [on] the west side of the Mississippi and some mill support that would allow the further growth of the processing,” Winterbottom said.

Next Up for Disruption: Global Trade in Scrap Metal?

Finally, I noticed that changed Chinese regulations for scrap metal imports may cause some disruption in scrap metal markets, similar to that which has occurred in the markets for other types of recyclable waste. According to Chinese port shuts out scrap metal imports 3 days before new restrictions take effect:

Copper is expected to be the commodity hit hardest by the new regulations. U.S. exports of copper and copper alloy scrap to China already were down by about 80% this year as a residual effect of other material bans and stricter contamination standards.

Concerns now center around the potential ripple effects these new regulations could have on other scrap metal markets. [The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) ], specifically, is monitoring whether metal exporters seeking new markets will cause an influx of material to other Southeast Asian countries.

“We don’t want to have a repeat of what happened with plastics when other Southeast Asian countries became overwhelmed and put restrictions on scrap imports,” [Joe Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities ISRI] explained. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia all implemented tighter regulations on scrap plastics and/or paper when they received a surge in materials from exporters shut out of Chinese markets.

The Bottom Line

I want to close by mentioning that many Asian countries have yet to address their own waste management issues – let alone enjoy sufficient capacity to process waste sent to them from foreign shores. To return to where I started – Indonesia. The Guardian notes:

As it repatriates unsanctioned waste, Indonesia has its own huge domestic rubbish issues to contend with. Many across the archipelago continue to burn toxic waste as a form of disposal, while each year tonnes of waste are dumped in the country’s rivers and oceans. Indonesia is the second-largest global contributor to marine plastic waste after China.

Indonesia has some of the best scuba diving in the world: Raja Ampat, Sulawesi. Those who dive its waters can’t fail to notice the ubiquitous marine plastic.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Well this is embarrassing. There was an Indonesian official that help up an Australian newspaper in front of an opened container stashed full of trash. Turned out to be the Courier Mail which is published in the nearby city of Brisbane. Do they not think to look over such containers before they leave the docks? I say good on the Indonesians for embarrassing Australia with their own garbage. There is absolutely no reason why our garbage should be dumped on other countries and I think that most people here would agree. There are just too many companies and officials who want to look for the easy way out of this problem of dealing with our own garbage. There is no excuse for this.

  2. bwilli123

    How much of the increase in use of Plastics in the past 25 years is a byproduct of Retailers increased use of longer overseas supply lines to guard against damage, or to reduce ‘shrinkage’, or to attain a longer shelf life?
    It would seem none of these are customer driven.
    Plastics should be taxed on their ability to be recycled, which should then be refunded upon the consumer returning them to the point of sale. Handling after that becomes the Retailer’s responsibility.
    Until this inconvenience affects their bottom line there is no incentive for Retailers not externalizing their costs upon the Community.

    1. Synoia

      Plastics should be taxed on their ability to be recycled

      I beg to differ. Plastic should be banned. It was not in use when I was a child, it arrived in the 1970s, and personally, I see little value for it now.

      We need to consume less, which can start with elimination of “packaging.”

    2. Briny

      Taxing on the bases of various factors does nothing to address the fact that we don’t/won’t sort it out from the other waste in the first place! Nappies, indeed.

  3. JohnnySacks

    China’s banning the import of scrap metal seems to be cutting their own nose off to spite their face. Mining and processing of copper, steel, and aluminum is more cost effective than recycling? I find it hard to believe than Mr. Market agrees with that assumption.
    Unfortunately the profits of our economic system since forever depend on dumping our shit down the socioeconomic and generational ladder. Good for Indonesia tossing sand in the face of the Aussie’s feel-good PR ploy.

    1. Ian Perkins

      “Mining and processing of copper, steel, and aluminum is more cost effective than recycling?”
      It is much, much cheaper to make aluminium from aluminium scrap than from bauxite, but a tiny amount of steel (eg a steel can or two) in the scrap will ruin it. I’ve seen enormous quantities of aluminium cans rejected for this reason after a 1980s Glastonbury Festival.
      Steel is more forgiving (small amounts of aluminium can actually be helpful), but ideally you still want to make new steel from steel, not a mixture of nappies, batteries, plastic bags and various metals. And a lot of steel in recycling streams is intimately bonded or joined to various plastics and non-ferrous metals, even when people attempt to sort their waste.
      I don’t know about copper, but I very much doubt that the Chinese are “cutting their own nose off to spite their face.” It’s hardly their form, and the facts suggest otherwise.

  4. Ignacio

    Hi Jerry Lynn, If you were wondering why the EU legislation regarding control of plastic in the environment has been so soft, let me present you the Scientific Advise Mechanism (SAM) report that I believe is the root of such softness. Let us quote a paragrahp from the executive summary which is key:

    Growing scientific evidence on the hazards of the uncontrolled, irreversible, and long-term ecological risks due to microplastics do exist for some coastal waters and sediments. Scientists predict that, if emissions to the environment continue at the current rate or increase, ecological risks could be widespread within a century. [emphasis mine]

    There it is. The question is that the Scientific Advisory Board hasn’t found “evidence for widespread risk” but this migth occur in 50-100 years. One wonders what kind of evidence would rise the alarms, and what kind of evidence has been looked for in the first place. Then, what kind of scientific evidence supports the later affirmation? None I guess.

    Go and take a look to the Chief Scientific Advisory pannel, the group of “experts consulted” –overwhelmingly from the European Comission–, the stakeholder meeting participants from the industry and wonder what other outcome could have been. The “conclusions” of the scientific pannel were basically “we don’t know” and on this basis the conclusion was “let us do the least we can”.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    I am very skeptical of all this concern about recycling and especially the recycling of plastics. Finding out that instead of recycling, ‘we’ have been exporting our “recycling” made me angry and mistrustful of all the Green baloney pushed down on us. The tremendous plastics gyres in our oceans originated how? Am I supposed to believe this stuff just blew off our beaches, boats, and ships, along with stuff riding out to sea from our rivers? It is much easier to suspect that more than a little of our ‘recycling’ was outsourced to be done at sea, or done in the rivers of the countries we shipped the stuff to. I suspect the ownership of the recycling companies and a closer look at the financials involved might prove more than a little interesting. I also suspect the rejections of our and Australia’s exported recycling wastes by China and Indonesia reflects political and international trade issues, and perhaps a demand for changes in the financial arrangements.

    If ‘we’ were serious about recycling beyond giving Greenies something to make them feel good there are plenty of laws and regulations that might be passed to actually accomplish recycling. We had the beginnings of a recycling industry and let “free-trade” smother it in its cradle.

    1. Ford Prefect

      Its very rude of our dumping grounds returning our trash to us to make us feel bad about our good habits of recycling.

  6. Cal2

    Too bad AARP doesn’t have a postage paid contract so I could send the two credit card sized unlabeled and impossible to recycle plastic cards that come in their bullshit spam postal mail back to them in their own envelope.

    I guess the yokels and oinks all over America consider something that kind of looks like a credit card to be of value and that’s why AARP pollutes the country with tens, or hundreds?, of millions of them.

    We now have EIGHT of these cards sent to us in the last year.
    AARP, American Association of Retired Persons, is an insurance scam masquerading as a non-profit.
    F* them forever, or at as long as their plastic cards last. No deterioration of the ones I stapled to our roof to test them years ago, the staple finally rusted and the cards fell off the barge board.

    1. Ron D

      I think we’ve stumbled onto a brilliant business idea. Recycle plastics into roofing material that is unfathomably long lasting. It could even be made to look like slate.

  7. John Zelnicker

    Jerri-Lynn – Thanks for keeping us up to date on these issues, they’re very important but rarely covered in the mainstream press.

    Seems like we’ve been following Larry Summers (allegedly sarcastic) advice in 1991 to dump our waste in less developed countries because the economic and health costs would be lower. It’s good to see these countries Just Say No.

    Recycling and waste disposal, like other public goods, need to be handled by government where the profit motive isn’t involved. If local communities can’t afford it, then the federal government should finance it.

    A correction: In the paragraph beginning “Moving westward, Oregon’s governor signed an etiolated ban…” it appears that you have 2 links combined into one.

  8. valuationguy


    Given that 70% of the worldwide recycling processing exists overseas in markets which have been closing to the U.S. (and no…the reasons aren’t international politics driven….rather is it DOMESTIC politics in the host Asian/African countries)….the near-term reality is that any and every municipality which has a recycling program and whose contract is coming up for renewal is going to be in for a major price shock (i.e. doubling isn’t unrealistic given the annual 25-30% rise in recycling cost over the past 2 years with expectation of another 5 years of similar cost increases until new domestic processing facilities can come online). Recycling is a major money loser for the industry atm….it being MUCH more economical to dump recyclables like glass/plastic/paper into landfills rather re-process the materials.

    Yes…gov’t can increase regulation and mandates…but all that does is further push up costs to the consumer. Waste companies have increasingly been applying the contamination fees already written into their muni contracts….as the processors have increased their surveillance of the recycling streams they are accepting. Those greasy pizza cardboard boxes many think are recyclable….aren’t…and it only takes one to technically trigger a per instance $35 contamination fee which would more than double what many residents are paying on a monthly basis for recycling. Same with many food-contaminated containers. The typical resident doesn’t pay much strict attention atm to the material they are recycling (despite every hauler and many municipalities having programs to educate them)…and industry studies show upward of 25% of recycling cans are technically contaminated waste (which has to be diverted to the landfill)…each of which could trigger the contaminated container fee every time it is lifted. Waste companies have typically looked the other way since processors weren’t too vigilant about it…..but with no where to go…the processors have drastically increased their rejections….forcing the waste haulers to begin systematically applying these contamination penalties.

    Given the number of cameras and GPS logging of lifts present on many waste hauling vehicles these days….actually proving the contamination when I consumer claims he was unfairly assessed the fee isn’t difficult to do these day…..which is very different than in the past when drivers had to specifically photograph and log contaminated cans.

    Metal is the only consistently profitable recyclable atm….due to increasing contamination of cardboard.

  9. lordkoos

    I read that a major reason China stopped accepting recyclable waste is because Americans are either stupid, ignorant or unwilling to separate their trash properly…

    1. Ian Perkins

      Aren’t they exercising their noble and god-given First Amendment right to express themselves freely by sending crap to sh!thole countries?

  10. rjs

    anyone have a sense of how much dirty bunker fuel is being burnt to send all this garbage back and forth across the ocean?

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