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Joining the dots on waste

Australia’s waste crisis on one page

Australia’s waste crisis is literally everywhere at the moment, and so is BehaviourWorks’ waste expert Jenni Downes.  Appearing on both Channel 10’s The Project and the ABC’s 7.30 Report in October 2019, Jenni’s insights are in demand as we come to terms with the challenge of turning our waste into a resource (check out out Waste and Circular Economy Collaboration here).


We’ve summarised the key points from Jenni’s segments for a quick overview:


* Our recycling system manages waste from households, business and industry and has historically worked pretty well.


* In the last decade, while a lot of material was still recycled here, more and more was being sold to overseas businesses willing to pay top dollar for it, particularly waste from our household kerbside bins.


* This means a lot of the focus on household recycling became more about ‘sorting’ than the reprocessing back into raw material / new products. However there have been recent shifts, with China particularly virtually stopping imports and other South East Asian companies tightening rules on what they will and won’t accept, particularly around the quality of sorting and level of contamination.


* This has caused some upheaval in the recycling industry, particularly in Victoria with the dramatic close of recycling company SKM. However, even with all these problems, and despite what the media is suggesting, in the 12 months to June 2019 in Victoria, only about 12% of what we place in our recycling bins actually goes to landfill (excluding the stuff that was never recyclable in the first place – if you include that it is 18%). The rest is being either still being exported (~35%) or processed/held for recycling here (~65%).


* With the change in export market, the waste industry has been calling on government to focus on building local capacity, and the federal government recently responded by announcing a ban on recycling exports, which means we now have to deal with our own waste.


* We need two things to be able to do this. First and obvious, we need more facilities that can process recycling back into raw material and manufacture new products from it, but secondly and critically we also need people and markets willing to buy the products made from recycled material.


* Government can play a big role in this, both by helping fund the development of new infrastructure, but also taking the lead in developing procurement guidelines requiring the use of recycled content in government construction and product purchasing.


* Companies like Coca Cola are actually importing recycled material because other countries are better at sorting it so that it’s not contaminated (such as recycled PET plastic from other countries that can provide a guaranteed volume of high quality recycling, which Australia can’t presently do). It’s a real balancing act.


* The lack of supply here in Australia is partly because we’ve been focused on sorting for export, but for ‘closed loop’ recycling (turning something back into itself) you need really well sorted material, and partly because it is genuinely hard to sort out the mixed material placed in ‘commingled’ kerbside recycling bins. So, part of the above infrastructure solution could be better collection and sorting infrastructure.


* Not only are unrecyclable items ending up in the recycling bin, the rules about what is and isn’t recyclable are complex, evolving and create confusion about what should and shouldn’t go in the recycling bin. This has been causing problems for our South East Asian trading partners sending back small numbers of shipments due to contamination. It’s also causing some headaches here in Australia. For example, when we recycle paper locally it is sent in large volume from a variety of densely populated areas to recycling facilities often located outside the main cities. All of the paper then gets sorted again by the recycling facility and some isn’t quality enough to use and so gets sent to landfill. An example is the Visy Pulp and Paper Mill in Tumut NSW, which turns 80% of the paper recycling it receives into new products, but has to send about 20% to landfill as it is too contaminated to use. This is often sent to local landfills, as it is not economic, environmentally friendly or logistically feasible to ship it back to where it came from. However, this leads to a feeling that cities are ‘dumping’ rubbish on regions, when in fact it is a less than ideal outcome of how our economy operates.


* We individually can play a role in helping with the current challenges, both in trusting our recycling system but being more careful about sorting our waste (‘If in doubt, leave it out!), plus also seeking out products with recycling material to buy to drive demand for recycled products.


* We also need our governments to play a key role in supporting new infrastructure and driving demand, and it is exciting to see these steps starting to be taken, including through BWA Consortium partners commitment and participation in the waste industry, which is looking at contamination/higher quality recycling, driving consumer/business interest in recycled products, and encouraging business participation in a broader circular economy.

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Bascially, we need:

* to think of plastic and other waste as a resource to be reused and recycling


* to sort our waste properly, to produce high quality material we can re-use.


* to find markets for recycled products, including for big business and government to set a precedent and buy back recycled products.