Where there's muck there's brass goes the phrase. Or in the present case of Auckland Council, when a barrier stops the muck — or plastic and paper — going where it is contracted to go, the brass dries up.

Except that in the dispute we report on today, the council appears to have shouldered a generous financial burden to retain the services of a giant recycling multinational hit by the sudden closure of the Chinese market for low-grade plastics and paper.

Ratepayers it would seem will be up for millions to cover the higher cost of recycling with China dropping the shutters.

Without all the details to the commercial changes it is hard to be certain whether the council proved to be a soft touch in reportedly agreeing for the contracted fee with kerbside recycler Visy rising from $2 million to $9.2 million a year for up to four years.

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If that is the case the case then it sends an unfortunate signal as it may embolden other firms with council contracts to play hardball. For the moment Indonesia and Vietnam are open to accepting the recycled plastic and paper waste of Aucklanders.

But given what has occurred in China, we should not expect the borders of other countries to remain open to waste forever. Third world markets for waste are changing rapidly and are increasingly reluctant to accept first world waste.

If it is any consolation, Auckland is not alone in seeking solutions to its waste stream. Christchurch City Council had to bail out its recycling company in June when its revenue collapsed after global paper, cardboard and plastic prices slumped.

What the costly saga in Auckland and Christchurch illustrates is the need to develop robust and durable processing arrangements within New Zealand and in the longer term address the entire rubbish stream.

Households tend to take rubbish services for granted given that virtually 100 per cent gets collected. Once it leaves the house it is easily forgotten. It does not though disappear, with a large amount going to landfill.

Auckland produces about 140,000 tonnes a year of recyclables, with glass and metal being processed locally.

The higher cost of the Visy contract is likely to be passed on in rates bills so residents will notice the change, though probably only in a small way.

Change can happen though not overnight. The decision by the big supermarkets to get rid of plastic checkout bags more or less overnight showed what can be achieved with the right sort of incentive.

Slowly the idea of recyclable coffee cups is catching on, as are composting bags. Overseas, cities have introduced volume charges, known as "pay-as-you-throw." They more you toss out, the more you pay.

Around the world households are learning how to better sort rubbish. In some US and European cities, collectors gather different materials on alternate days. In supermarkets, machines which accept empty drink bottles and return money to users, are appearing.

Consumer habits take time to change. The jump in the cost for Auckland of disposing of recyclables is a tangible sign they need to change soon.