The Australian Government has granted four exemptions this year that enable companies to circumvent the nation's ban on exporting waste plastics.
The most recent was on May 10 to Sydney-based waste product commodity trader Oatley Resources Australia Pty. Ltd., which received a 12-month exemption to "export clean, sorted PET waste plastic for further processing and remanufacturing into new products overseas."
The Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water's website said: "This temporary exemption allows for the export of a limited amount of sorted, single polymer non-premium PET waste plastic to resolve stockpiling issues of domestic consolidators. Oatley must, during the exemption period, provide three reports to the department detailing compliance with the conditions of the exemption."
Exemptions were granted earlier this year to three companies that are currently building recycling facilities. Brisbane-based Genuine Recycling Group Pty. Ltd. received an exemption to export clean, unmixed low density polyethylene until its facility in Runcorn, Queensland, is built.
Melbourne-based PCP Global Recycling Pty. Ltd. also can export LDPE while it is building a plant in an unnamed location in Victoria, as can YCA Recycling Pty. Ltd., which is developing a LDPE mechanical processing line at its facility in Wingfield, South Australia.
The export ban took effect July 1, 2022, after state and territory governments agreed to cede responsibility for plastic export permits to the federal government. The subsequent legislation allows waste plastic to be exported only if it is "sorted into single resin or polymer type and further processed, for example flaked or pelletized, or processed with other materials into processed engineered fuel."
Companies must obtain an export license to do so. The exemption permits mean exported product is not required to be flaked or pelletized.
Mark Christie, Oatley's Australian managing director, was quoted in a newspaper report saying the company — founded in 2016 as a unit of Oakley Resources in the United Kingdom — was quantifying how much plastic could be exported and was preparing for "tricky conversations with possible export partners."
The newspaper named potential export markets as North America, Central America, Europe and Southeast Asia. Christie did not respond to Plastics News' request for comment.
Gayle Sloan, CEO of the Sydney-based peak body Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR), told Plastics News the exemptions are "a safety valve" because Australia has insufficient onshore processing facilities for recycling plastics.
She rejected calls for the ban to be revoked, saying exporting was "better than waste plastic going to landfill," which was the only alternative until there were sufficient onshore facilities.
Sloan said applying for an exemption is "not a quick, easy process" and conditions are strict.
"The ban is just one part of the solution. It's a shared responsibility, you can't just put a block at the end of the pipe and hope that will work. We need a requirement for manufacturers to turn waste plastic back into product and we need to incentivize that."
In a submission to government when the bans were proposed, Sloan said: "For the bans to be successful, it is vital there are interventions in the entire supply chain in Australia including packaging design, material selection, recycled content and government procurement."
WMRR's submission also said: "Requiring producer responsibility, implementing funding models that result in polluter pays, enforceable targets with penalties, and rolling out levers that disincentivize virgin use are all tools and policies that have been introduced by other OECD nations, but not in Australia."
Sloan said there is limited onshore demand for low-grade and colored PET but water bottles collected via container deposit programs and curbside recycling are "coveted because they're easier to recycle."
She said the goal is to increase onshore recycling facilities and require manufacturers use higher levels of recycled content instead of virgin resin. "We need a regulatory scheme that requires recycled content so we're not getting a proliferation of low-grade plastic."