MELBOURNE, Australia — Since China stopped accepting much of the world’s recyclable waste last year, many countries have been faced with the challenge of how to deal with their own trash.
In some places, plastic, paper and other scraps have been put in landfills or stockpiled, and fires at recycling centers have underlined the environmental risks. In other places, new fees have passed the increased cost of dealing with these materials on to consumers.
Last week, leaders in Australia made bold moves toward eventually banning the export of any recyclable waste in a bid to increase onshore processing of the materials. The ultimate goal is to prevent the waste from ending up in the ocean, they said.
“It’s our waste, and it’s our responsibility,” Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, told reporters at a news conference on Friday.
Policy experts say that reducing initial consumption of materials is essential. But Australia’s commitment also involves developing new approaches to recycling that, if scaled up, might one day change where your takeout containers and coffee cups end up.
Sixteen miles north of Melbourne, there is a road paved with the equivalent of 200,000 plastic bags, 63,000 glass bottles and waste toner from 4,500 printer cartridges. It is the first road in the world made of Reconophalt, a combination of recycled materials and asphalt.
The new material is “a dumping ground for plastics,” said Peter Tamblyn, a spokesman for Close the Loop, the company that developed the material.
So far, hundreds of miles of roads using Reconophalt have been laid around Australia, and trials are taking place in the United States and Britain.
Factories that reprocess materials like plastic, glass and paper are usually large, expensive operations that produce one or a few recycled products.
But researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney are exploring the possibility of “microfactories”: small, modular machines that can be used together in various combinations to create new materials.
The system is designed to “decentralize” recycling, said Veena Sahajwalla, the director of the university’s Center for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology, who leads the project. “There’s more than enough waste available,” she added, “and there’s more than enough demand.”
Disposable coffee cups might seem recyclable, but most are lined with a fine film of plastic that makes them very difficult and expensive to reprocess.
The cups can, however, be mixed with recycled plastic to make various other products, including outdoor benches, vegetable garden planter boxes, coat hangers and even reusable coffee cups.
“Our plan is always to make the waste into products that goes back to the customers we got the waste from in the first place,” said Robert Pascoe, the managing director of Closed Loop, which manufactures new materials from the disposable cups.
Currently, the company recycles about seven million cups per year. Mr. Pascoe said he hoped that one day, the increased use of reusable cups will render the company’s business model unnecessary.
Imagine if the rocks, cans, wrappers and other trash swept from the streets could be sorted, separated and reused. In fact, those items can be sorted in a “detritus processing facility.”
After Sydney’s street sweepers collect the city’s trash, some is taken to a 24-hour processor, where organic and nonorganic materials are separated. Some of this matter, like rocks, might be used to construct roads, while plastics, for example, are sold to recycling facilities.
One processing facility can divert more than 21,000 tons of waste per year from landfills, according to Downer, the company that runs the project. “If it didn’t come to us, it would have to go to landfill,” said Jim Appleby, a manager of recycling and infrastructure at Downer. “It’s a really exciting project,” he added.
Facilities that can incinerate unrecyclable scraps and convert them into electricity have only recently gained traction in Australia, but in Sweden, for example, waste-to-energy plants have been so effective that the country has begun importing other countries’ trash.
This approach has its critics: Environmental advocates say the facilities pollute air and waterways, and waste managers warn that the method might discourage other forms of recycling.
But proponents say the waste-to-energy technique reduces the use of fossil fuels and cuts potential greenhouse gas emissions from decomposing waste.
“At the end of trying to reduce, reuse and recycle, there will always be some fraction of residue material,” said Pete Shmigel, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Recycling. Converting only this final waste to electricity, he said, makes sense.
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