Recycling, chaos theory and why an environmental drive in China has Australian repercussions

AT A meeting of scientists in 1972 mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz gave a talk called Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?

It introduced the world to chaos theory and the “butterfly effect” – the idea that small variations in the initial conditions of a system can lead to dramatically different outcomes at a later point.

Away from academia, where Lorenz’s theories prompted debate that continues to this day, the “butterfly effect” has come to mean something much looser than the concepts that appear in scientific papers.

The “butterfly effect” is often presented as shorthand for the idea that “we are all connected”, in a world where the environment is increasingly under pressure and social media can connect people as diverse as a fisherman in Finland with a teacher in Tokyo and a nurse in Newcastle.

Decades after Lorenz’s talk a type of “butterfly effect” has happened, although the consequences were entirely predictable.

Does an environmental drive by a Chinese President set off a garbage drama in the Hunter? And the answer is well, yes. It does.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to clean up his country and stop it becoming the final resting place for Australian waste has caused real problems for local recycling businesses after it came into effect on January 1.

While China is to be applauded for prioritising the environment after years of promoting growth and development with few brakes, it has brought to an end the idea that we can just keep making waste and shipping it offshore.

But the timing is not good. In 2017 we discovered that while we’re relatively good at putting bottles out for recycling, there’s nowhere for them to go leading to stockpiles of glass with no market.

Lake Macquarie City Council has confirmed it collects 61,000 tonnes of recyclate material from 263,000 households a year.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority and councils across the state are doing what their counterparts are doing in other parts of the country – trying to work out a permanent solution for the recyclable waste we make. Newcastle City Council’s offer of expansive landfill capacity is a possible short-term fix, but the butterfly that flapped in China has fanned a real storm here.

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