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Tractor at a landfill site  © Steve Morgan / WWF-UK

Tractor at a landfill site © Steve Morgan / WWF-UK

The state of Australia's recycling - how did we get into this mess?

09 Aug 2019

Keywords
  • plastic
  • sustainable living

Congratulations on completing Plastic Free July!

 

You're probably wondering how on Earth we got ourselves into this mess and what Australia's doing to address our overuse of plastics.

 

In 2017-18, we used some 3.4 million tonnes of plastics in Australia. Just 9.4% - 320,000 tonnes - was recycled. Of that amount, 46% (145,700 tonnes) was reprocessed in Australia and 54% (174,300 tonnes) was exported for reprocessing. With recovery rates so low, that means a valuable resource is going to waste.

 

Why? 

We produce a lot of plastic waste, for one thing, and we've yet to develop large, sustainable markets in Australia for recycled plastic products. Our waste collection and resource recovery industry are also very fragmented. Legislative requirements vary from state to territory; some councils that collect our kerbside recycling bins can process recycled material themselves, while others rely on contractors. And as recent media coverage has shown, not all players are scrupulous.

 

But today's consumers demand more. The Reduce-Reuse-Recycle message is getting cut-through but consumers want to know more. We want to know where our recyclables end up and the cost to the environment. Rising landfill levies have also made burying waste more expensive, and the other (highly toxic) option - incineration without energy recovery - is helping to drive climate change. Concern about the environmental impacts of waste, and plastic especially, is driving a new era of improved accountability.

 

Mountain garbage in Municipal landfill for household waste © Shutterstock / kwanchai.c / WWF 

Unfortunately, we live at a time when using virgin plastic is still cheaper than recycling the plastic already in circulation, and there are few financial incentives for manufacturers to use recycled materials. Australia also lacks much of the technology and infrastructure necessary to turn large volumes of plastic into other useful things. Unlike nations in Europe, who are eagerly processing their own waste - saving considerable energy and transport costs and creating jobs and safeguarding the environment - we've been slow to move towards what is known as a circular economy.

 

Australia now has a National Waste Policy, adopted last year, which is a good start. But its voluntary targets are yet to be endorsed by our federal and state environment ministers, and so far, no formal action plans or funding streams have been developed. The Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association (WMRR) of Australia, the peak body for Australia's $14 billion waste and resource recovery industry, has called on the federal government to urgently bring policies and regulations into line nationally, "to ensure the certainty of volumes to build infrastructure, create jobs and grow domestic processing".

 

So where do we, the consumers, fit in?

An efficient waste and recycling system does not only depend on reputable collectors and processors and favourable market forces. It also relies on committed consumers knowing what can be recycled and where and sorting their rubbish carefully to avoid contamination.

 

So, what are your options for recycling plastics?

  • Kerbside recycling. This involves contractors or council collectors taking your recyclable plastics to MRFs(Material Recovery Facilities), where it’s sorted, compacted and baled for sale.
  • Container deposit schemes. Currently operating in South Australia, NSW and Queensland, these schemes accept selected plastic drink containers (made of PET and HDPE plastics).
  • Collect and return to store. Companies like REDcycle collect soft, single-use plastic that consumers return to major supermarkets and on-sell, largely to Replas.
  • Commercial and industrial. Plastics that contractors collect from our workplaces are sorted in MRFs, in the same way as kerbside recycling but on a larger scale.

Green recycle bin surrounded by plastic bottles / Photo by rawpixels from Pexels 

Reality check

There's growing worldwide recognition that we need to start taking greater responsibility for plastic waste. The environmental toll is undeniable: some eight million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans every year, with horrifying effects on our marine habitats and creatures. WWF has shone a spotlight on the heartbreaking impacts that entanglement and ingestion of plastics have on turtles and seabirds.

 

In Australia, every state and territory except NSW has now banned single-use, lightweight plastic bags (with Victoria coming into effect later this year). We've also become much better at returning soft plastics to major supermarkets. However, the trouble is that supply is outstripping demand. Replas (which receives the bulk of these plastics) currently processes 3,000 tonnes a year but says it could grow to 10,000 tonnes if demand for its durable outdoor furniture, bollards and decking boards rose.

Similarly, container deposit schemes are boosting the return rates for some plastics, but industry players say these rates could be even higher with better plastic labelling (to distinguish what can and can't be recycled) and improved consumer education.

 

One of the biggest contributors to plastic waste in Australia is packaging, of which there is just under one million tonnes in our marketplace at any given time. Only about 32% of this is recovered andless than 5% is made of recycled plastic. The Australian Government has pledged to ensure that 100% of Australian packaging will be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 and has charged the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) with delivering on that (voluntary) target.

 

It's an ambitious goal, especially given there is currently no mandatory requirement for manufacturers to choose recycled over virgin plastic. Nor are they responsible for the wastes they produce. Many believe that if plastic had a fee associated with it, we would produce and consume less.

 

The good news is that all these great ideas are now on the agenda. There's growing pressure on the Federal Government to adopt "Buy Recycled" or "minimum recycled content" policies and to introduce product stewardship schemes that make manufacturers responsible for waste disposal at the end of a product's life.

 

Stimulating innovation

The decision of Asian countries to reject our waste has cast a spotlight on Australia's wasteful consumption, our choices at the supermarket and the inadequacies of our recovery and recycling systems. And with the Australian Government's recent announcement that all domestic waste exports will be banned, it has put the responsibility back on Australians - especially regarding plastics - to clean up our act. Enterprising manufacturers and businesses are not waiting for national legislation and reform, they're taking the lead in developingefficient processing techniques and new markets for recycled product.

 

Research is well advanced into converting plastic into energy and we're already seeing plastic used to make furniture, fenceposts and even roads. WWF-Australia has even transformed a deadly gill net from the northern Great Barrier Reef into ReefCycle sunglasses. We're beginning to see plastic in a new light.

 

Exporting the problem

The recycling landscape has changed dramatically since Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand and India dramatically cut the amount of low-grade recyclable material they will accept. As you've no doubt heard, they've grown tired of dealing with contaminated batches, which can be downright dangerous. They also have rising middle classes of their own, producing wastes that need recycling in their own country.

 

Given that China, alone, was importing as much as 70% of the world's recyclable commodities, this has created a major headache for waste recovery and recycling companies around the globe, including those in Australia. It's left them with few choices but to:

  • find alternative buyers in Australia for the recyclables (limited, due to our lack of infrastructure and markets);
  • stockpile the recyclables at a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) or recycling facility until another overseas market can be found (voluminous and flammable, as we've seen in Victoria);
  • pay levies and transport the wastes to landfill, sometimes interstate (increasingly expensive); or explore waste to energy opportunities.

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