Recycling plastic bottles is good, but reusing them is better


Rachael Wakefield-Rann, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Monash University, and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

Last week Woolworths announced a new food delivery system, in collaboration with US company TerraCycle, that delivers grocery essentials in reusable packaging.

The system, called Loop, lets shoppers buy products from common supermarket brands in reusable packaging.

As Australia works out how to meet the national packaging target for 100% of Australian packaging to be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025, programs like this offer an opportunity to overhaul how plastic packaging is produced, used and recycled.




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Recycling alone is not the silver bullet

Plastic packaging, most of which is for food and beverages, is the fastest growing category of plastic use.

In Australia less than 10% of this plastic packaging is recycled, compared with 70% for paper and cardboard packaging.

Of the seven categories of plastic, recycling of water bottles (PET) and milk bottles (HDPA) is most effective, yet recycling rates remain relatively low, around 30%.

Other hard plastics (PVC, PS) and soft or flexible plastics, such as clingfilm and plastic bags, present significant challenges for recyclers. In the case of soft plastics, although recycling options are available, the use of additives known as plasticisers – used to make the hard plastic soft and malleable – often make products recycled out of soft plastics weak, non-durable, and unable to be recycled further.

Some researchers argue recycling actually represents a downgrading process, as plastic packaging is not always recycled into new packaging, owing to contamination or diminished quality.




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Even where single-use plastic packaging can be effectively recycled, it often isn’t. The more single-use plastics that are produced, the higher the chance they will enter the ocean and other environments where their plasticiser chemicals leach out, harming wildlife populations and the humans who depend on them.

Zero Waste Europe recently updated its Waste Hierarchy to emphasise avoiding packaging in the first instance, and to encourage reuse over recycling.

The zero waste hierarchy for a circular economy.
Zero Waste Europe

Getting reuse right

For a reusable product to be more environmentally sustainable than a single-use product, it must promote the use of less energy and resources in our daily routines.

Although the uptake of products such as reusable cups and shopping bags have increased, these types of reusable items have attracted criticism. If used correctly, these products represent a positive change. However, some research suggests these products can be less sustainable than the single-use items they are replacing if people treat them like disposable items and do not reuse them enough.

For example, if you regularly buy new reusable bags at the supermarket, that potentially has a greater environmental impact than using “single-use” plastic bags.

To really reduce plastic packaging, we need to find ways to alter the routines that involve plastic packaging, rather than directly substituting individual products (such as reusable bags for single-use ones).

Developing new reusable packaging systems

Redesigning ubiquitous plastic packaging means understanding why it is so useful. For food packaging, its functions might include:

  1. allowing food to travel from producer to consumer while maintaining its freshness and form

  2. enabling the food to be kept on a shelf for an extended period of time without becoming inedible

  3. allowing the brand to display various nutritional information, branding and other product claims.

So how might these functions be met without disposable plastic packaging?

TerraCycle Loop, the business model that Woolworths has announced it will partner with, is currently also trialling services in the United States and France. They have partnered with postal services and large food and personal care brands including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo.

Customers order products online, from ice-cream to juice and shampoo, with a small container deposit. These items are delivered to their house, and collected again with the next delivery. The containers are washed and taken back to the manufacturers for refill. The major participating brands have all redesigned their packaging to participate in the program.

TerraCycle Loop reusable packaging.
TerraCycle Loop

This model works because it is not replacing products one-for-one, but creating a new product system to allow people to easily integrate reuse into their daily routines.

We can examine the function of single use plastic packaging in takeaway food in a similar way. The purpose of takeaway food packaging is to let us enjoy a meal at home or on the move without having to cook it ourselves or sit in a restaurant. So how might these functions be achieved without disposable packaging?

Australian company RETURNR has addressed this with a system in which cafes partner with food delivery services. Customers buy food in a RETURNR container, pay a deposit with the cost of their meal, and then return the container to any cafe in the network.

The Kickstarter campaign Zero Co, is offering a similar model for a resuse service that covers kitchen, laundry and bathroom products.

Making reuse easy and convenient is crucial to the success of these systems.




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If Australia is to meet our national packaging targets, we need to prioritise the elimination of unnecessary packaging. Although recycling is likely to remain crucial to keeping plastic waste out of landfill in the near future, it should only be pursued when options higher up the waste hierarchy – such as reuse – have been ruled out.The Conversation

Rachael Wakefield-Rann, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No Australian city has a long-term vision for living sustainably. We can’t go on like this


Mike Berry, RMIT University and Ian Lowe, Griffith University

This article is part of a series on rebalancing the human–nature interactions that are central to the study and practice of ecological economics, which is the focus of the 2019 ANZSEE Conference in Melbourne later this month.


Australia was already one of the most urbanised nations by the end of the 19th century. Unlike European and North American countries, Australia’s pattern of settlement did not have a neat urban hierarchy. The gap between the large and small towns was huge.

These patterns have intensified in the decades since federation, especially after the second world war. International and internal migration trends have driven rapid growth in the big cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney. This has created major problems with providing adequate housing, infrastructure and services.

The fundamental issue is the reluctance of urban communities and their leaders to discuss what might be sustainable populations.




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The folly of unlimited growth

No Australian city has a long-term vision showing how a future stabilised population might be supported with the essential resources of food, water and energy. No Australian city has faced up to the inevitable social tensions of increasing inequality between a well-served inner-urban elite and an increasingly under-resourced urban fringe.

Leaders in cities that have not grown as rapidly, such as Adelaide, lament their failure to grow like Sydney and Melbourne, despite all the associated problems. All implicitly believe unlimited growth is possible.

In reality, the expanding ecological footprints of the large cities have created unsustainable demands on land to support urban dwellers. And the wastes the cities produce are straining the capacity of the environment to handle these.




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Given the many unpriced flow-on effects from dense urban growth and market-led development, governments are struggling to deal with the undesirable consequences. Congestion and pollution threaten to overwhelm the many social and economic benefits of urban life.

The growth and concentration of populations are also driving chronic excess demand for appropriate housing. The result is serious affordability problems, which are adding to inequality across society and generations.




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In 1970, urban historian Hugh Stretton pointed to the role of Australia’s widespread owner occupation in offsetting the inequalities generated in labour markets and by inherited wealth. This is no longer the case.

The dominant neoliberal economic ideology has resulted in a retreat from providing public housing. Abandoning would-be home-owners to the market has produced a situation in which urban land and house ownership is reinforcing class-based inequalities. Home ownership is increasingly the preserve of the affluent and their children.

Housing-related inequality is also seen in the geography of our cities. Poorer households are priced out of locations with better access to good jobs, schools, transport, health care and other services.




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Failures of governance

Governments in Australia’s federation are poorly placed to respond adequately. Responsibilities and fiscal resources are divided, creating obstacles to effective planning and infrastructure provision.

The main factor driving urban population growth is an unprecedented rate of inward migration. The national government sets large migration targets as an easy way of creating economic growth. This leaves state governments with the impossible task of meeting the resulting demand for infrastructure.

Jane O’Sullivan has shown each extra urban citizen requires about A$250,000 of investment. The total sum is well beyond the capacity of state and local governments.

Arguments between federal and state governments are heavily politicised, especially when it comes to major transport investments. Even within single jurisdictions, complex demands and unexpected consequences prevent effective action. The waste recycling crisis is a prime example.

State governments must also deal with difficult trade-offs between, for example, allowing further development on the edges of cities or encouraging higher density in built-up areas. This often involves conflicts with local governments and communities, concerned to protect their ways of life.

Australian planners and governments have long tinkered with policies to encourage decentralisation to smaller cities. Despite these attempts, the dominant pattern of urbanisation with its seemingly intractable problems has hardened, a triumph of reality over rhetoric.




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What needs to change?

To get beyond the rhetoric and make our cities more sustainably liveable requires a much more deliberate and interventionist role for government. It also requires residents of our cities and suburbs to be willing to allow their governments to interrupt business as usual.

This, we know from experience, is a big ask. It will step on the toes of the property lobby and ordinary home owners. In some cases, for example, the short-term financial interests of property owners are leading local authorities to ignore scientific warnings about the impacts of climate change on coastal development.




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Major changes are also needed in how urban land is taxed and the proceeds invested. “Simple” reforms like replacing stamp duty on land transfer with a universal land tax, as the Henry Tax Review recommended, will take political courage that has been absent to date.

More complex policies like finding ways of diverting population growth to non-metropolitan regions will take careful thought and experimentation. This might include relocating government agencies to provincial cities. This has been tried sporadically in the past at the federal level and in states such as Victoria and New South Wales. However, such cases tend to be one-offs and do not reflect an overall strategic plan.

Future generations will inevitably be critical of the complete failure of current leaders to plan for sustainable development.The Conversation

Mike Berry, Emeritus Professor, RMIT University and Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.