Another COAG meeting, another limp swing at the waste problem


Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

A meeting on Friday between state and federal environment ministers to discuss Australia’s recycling and waste crisis has been disappointingly inconclusive.

Some targets were set for banning the export of various used materials: glass exports will be banned by July 2020 and mixed plastics by July 2021. New focus was put on managing other waste, such as batteries and tyres.




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Other actions agreed upon include:

  • an 80% recovery rate of material across all waste streams,
  • significant increases to government procurement of recycled materials, and
  • halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfill.

So, not all doom and gloom.

But it was reasonable to expect this meeting to deliver more concrete strategies. We have known since 2013 China would stop accepting low-quality rubbish imports; the time has well and truly come for real action.

Inquiry upon inquiry upon…

In 2018 the commonwealth, state and local governments came together to agree to a National Waste Policy.

Providing 14 strategies, it was expected specific detail on actual targets and implementation schedules would follow.

Moving forward, at a December 2018 meeting of environment ministers another set of actions was agreed upon, again with an understanding that detail on implementation and targets would be developed.




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Following another COAG meeting in August 2019 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the export of recyclables would be banned as “soon as possible”. In Tuvalu for the Pacific Islands Forum later that month, Morrison made a commitment to “attack waste in the South Pacific”.

And in October this year the commonwealth government announced an inquiry into Australia’s waste management and recycling industries.

The states and councils are acting

So are we really any closer to solving the waste and recycling problem?

There has been some commendable efforts by state and local governments. Victoria currently has a number of inquiries, reviews and reports underway into improving recycling and waste management.




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South Australia had a task force to advise the government on legislation to phase out single-use plastics. Queensland has similarly released a plastic pollution reduction plan.

In addition, councils are looking at a variety of schemes to better manage waste. Yarra Council is providing an extra bin for glass, for example, and Ballarat has banned it from the household recycling stream.

While each plan has been well thought out by the councils, the main issue is the lack of consistency. When someone is visiting or moves across council lines, they may inadvertently contaminate recycling streams by simply doing what they would when at their own home.

Better options do exist

A recent draft report from Infrastructure Victoria provided a range of options for improving waste and recycling management. These options were provided to (among other reasons) promote discussion as to what could be the preferred options.

This draft report covered the many areas that could be improved – such as the processing sector, use of recycled materials, waste to energy, organics management and so on. Yet the one proposal that received media attention was the suggestion that households have six bins for sorting waste and recyclables.




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After all these inquiries, meetings and recommended actions by the various levels of government, where are we at? Recyclables are still going to landfill, many in the community are still confused as to how to correctly sort waste and recyclables, and the issue of contamination has not been resolved.

It was hoped this November meeting would finally result in specific actions and detailed solutions.

Where are the commitments to waste avoidance and reduction initiatives? What about community education to reduce contamination? Or a way to ensure consistency within and across the states and territories?

Education is vital for reducing the inappropriate mixing of recycled materials. Yet very little has been done, excluding some sterling efforts by local councils. This is an easy and relatively cheap action. It is very difficult to understand why we don’t, for example, see national TV ads indicating correct recycling.

There is also compelling evidence container deposit schemes are effective and can significantly reduce ocean plastic.

Finally, as the industry peak body has said, the ultimate issue is the lack of sophisticated reprocessing and manufacturing facilities in Australia to handle paper and plastic recyclables domestically.




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Deposit schemes reduce drink containers in the ocean by 40%


So now we await the next environment ministers meeting, scheduled for early 2020, for more detail on schedules and implementation.

Perhaps we should just settle back, take a deep breath, and keep doing what we’re doing. More band-aid solutions may only create greater confusion, and ultimately fail to reduce waste or increase proper recycling.The Conversation

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

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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China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


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.

Stop shaming and start empowering: advertisers must rethink their plastic waste message



A woman sorts plastic bottles at a workshop in Hanoi. The world is being overwhelmed by plastic waste, and companies should do more to address it.
EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

Sergio Brodsky, RMIT University

Discussion of the environment is embedded in our culture as public awareness over issues such as climate change and plastic pollution has grown. Advertisers are not shy about tapping into this concern for their own benefit.

A Twitter analysis last year revealed that in the UK at least, the environment was a current and growing issue. Between January 2015 and March 2018, discussion on Twitter about single-use plastic, for example, increased by an incredible 5,543%.

Advertisers are already highly skilled at the power of narrative: reducing complexity and helping us make sense of their message. This power is amplified when the narrative taps into culture. A brand message, if successful, then becomes part of people’s conversations rather than interrupting them with ads they don’t care about.




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Advertisers who tell a good story can persuade the public of all sorts of things. Some messages are positive and constructive. But a few are disingenuous and misleading.

The latter is especially true in the case of recycling, where advertisers often imply that consumers, not corporations, are responsible for the huge amounts of plastic waste a product creates.

A CocaCola recycling campaign that ran in the 2019 European summer.
Supplied by author

Plastic pollution is a big deal

Australia’s National Waste Report last year found 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2016-17 – or 103kg for each person. Most of it was only used once, and just 12% was recycled.

Coca-Cola says by the end of 2019, 70% of its plastic bottles in Australia will be made entirely from recycled plastic. The company in August released a video in Australia thanking people for recycling.




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It follows a European campaign launched by the company in June with the tagline “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle”.

Absolut Vodka this year launched a new limited edition bottle made of 41% recycled glass – like all of its bottles – accompanied by a “Guide to a Circular Living Together”. The company told customers: “Now’s your time to shine on stage – rocking the recycling lifestyle as a true #RecyclingHero!”

Coca-Cola Australia | Thanks For Recycling Campaign, 2019.

On the face of it, such campaigns might seem virtuous, especially following China’s 2018 policy limiting the import of low-quality mixed recyclables. But in fact they continue a long history of framing consumers as the main waste culprits.

The practice began in the US in the 1950s when Keep America Beautiful was formed. The non-profit consortium included Coca-Cola and tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris, among others. Its campaigns, such as the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad, tapped into a shared cultural guilt for polluting the environment and, in this case, mistreating native people.

Such tactics have been mirrored by Keep Australia Beautiful campaigns.

But guilt is not a good predictor of people’s behaviour. A 2001 study found individuals must feel ethically validated, not guilty, to behave in an environmentally friendly way.

Consumers are not the villains

Manufacturers of consumer products obviously play a major role in the growing plastic problem. This is reflected in the Australian Packaging Covenant, an agreement between government and industry.

It says responsibility for packaging should be shared by companies throughout the supply chain. Consumers, waste service providers, recyclers and governments also have roles to play.




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Researchers have noted that a permissive legal framework has allowed plastic pollution to rise despite the obvious harm it causes to communities and marine life.

As Recycled Plastics Australia general manager Stephen Scherer told the ABC this year:

…the federal government has been absent from the conversation about waste, while Australians are operating in a culture where ‘we don’t do what we’re not forced to do’.

Plastic waste is on the radar of Australian governments. State and federal environment ministers last year set a target that all packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier.

But critics say rather than set targets, the federal government must mandate the use of recycled plastic in packaging to ensure the waste problem is addressed.

Fish swimming along a coral reef near a water bottle label and a plastic bag off the coast of the Red Sea resort town of Naama Bay, Egypt.
Mike Nelson/EPA

Recycling campaigns done right

Companies such as Coca-Cola are embracing the concept of sustainability to some extent. But better still, other brands have sought to fix recycling systems themselves.

In February Unilever “paid” people in Buenos Aires, Argentina for their household recyclables with discount coupons redeemable against its products at selected retailers.

In the UK, Burger King last month announced it was scrapping plastic toys from kids’ meals and invited the public to bring in old plastic toys from any restaurant meal. The plastic will be remade into “interactive play opportunities” for families at their restaurants.

In Australia, superannuation fund Australian Ethical ran its latest campaign on 100% recyclable billboard skins.

Consumers do have a role to play in waste reduction, including by recycling or demanding that companies find alternatives to single-use plastics. But if companies want to respond meaningfully to the plastic crisis, they must accept ultimate responsibility for their packaging and work towards zero-waste.The Conversation

Sergio Brodsky, Sessional Lecturer, Marketing, RMIT University

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

Here is a global solution to the plastic waste crisis – and A$443 million to get it started



Informal settlments line a plastic-choked river in Manila, Philippines.
newsinfo.inquirer.net

Andrew Forrest, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

Since the mass production of plastic began, almost six billion tonnes of it – approximately 91% – has remained in our air, land and water. Plastic production and use is embedded in the global economy, and in our natural environment. This culture of waste is clearly perilous and unsustainable.

Our paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can stop the plastic tide.

It is backed by a commitment by the Minderoo Foundation, chaired by the lead author, of up to US$300 million (A$443 million) to help establish the scheme and ensure its integrity.

The paper argues that the intervention – a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic – would drive a system-wide transition to recycled plastic. Our modelling shows that this would lead to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new plastic – creating huge benefits for marine life and human health.

We must turn off the tap

Plastic takes so long to break down that every piece produced since its inception in 1856 still exists today, except the small share we’ve burned into poisonous gases.

Many strategies to address the plastic problem have been proposed to date, and efforts have been commendable. But we are bailing out a bathtub with a thimble – while the tap is running.

We have identified a simple solution: a voluntary industry contribution for new fossil fuel-based plastic production.

We believe this technical and financial initiative would level the playing field by making recycled plastic more competitively priced, establishing the right market conditions for a circular plastics economy.

We know from our discussions with industry that this would release technology, in particular chemical or ‘polymer-to-polymer’ recycling, that is proven today but cannot yet compete economically with new fossil fuel-derived plastic. Increased demand from recyclers would transform plastic waste into a commodity, driving plastic recovery and creating incentives for industry to invest and transition. This is already true for materials like aluminium cans, which are highly recycled because the metal has an inherent value.

Ascension Island is thousands of miles from land, yet even there oceanic wildlife can’t escape plastic waste.
University of Western Australia – Marine Futures Lab / Ascension Island Government

By mobilising new technology to increase recycling rates, plastic flows to the ocean and the broader environment would slow, and hopefully cease altogether. A circular plastics economy would also significantly reduce carbon emissions created through new plastic production.




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Our relationship with plastic is broken

The vast majority of plastics produced to date are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are made from polymers – long molecular chains comprising smaller carbon-based molecules. Oil and gas are the cheapest materials from which to produce raw polymer resin. This resin is then made into plastic by adding dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.

Fossil fuel-based plastic has countless uses and is produced very cheaply. Plastic recycling has largely been overlooked because, in the developed world at least, our waste is carted away from our homes and often shipped overseas. This leaves little incentive to tackle our plastic addiction.

But our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality cannot persist.

In 2017, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, mainly plastics. This revealed the extent to which developed countries had been sending their waste problem elsewhere. In Australia this led to recyclables being stockpiled, landfilled or sent to countries ill-equipped to handle them.




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Media coverage is also increasingly highlighting the environmental impact of our throwaway culture: plastic washed up on beaches, filling the guts of endangered marine animals and accumulating en masse in circular ocean currents.

This is an abhorrent market failure, which conservatively costs US$ 2.2 trillion (A$3.25 trillion) each year in environmental and socioeconomic damages not taken into account by business or the consumer.

A turtle with a plastic bag fragment in its mouth. Plastic waste in the world’s oceans is devastating some marine life.
Melbourne Zoo

The Sea The Future initiative

We propose an initiative led by global manufacturers in which they make a voluntary financial contribution for each unit of new fossil fuel-based plastic produced. We have dubbed the initiative “Sea The Future”.

Placing a value on plastic both drives its collection and diverts new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution, estimated in our paper as averaging US$500 (A$738) per tonne, would be key to encouraging the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material.

The cost would be passed onto consumers via trillions of individual plastic items. The impact would be negligible – say, a few cents on a cup of coffee – and so is likely to gain broad public acceptance.

Anticipating the concerns of regulators that such a move could be perceived as anti-competitive, the lead author has engaged with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.

The contribution turns plastic waste into a cashable commodity, feeding the circular economy.

The estimated US$20 billion (A$29.5 billion) per year raised through the initiative would be used to help establish recycling infrastructure, aid industry transition and remediate the environment. Increased demand and a higher price for recycled material also promises to significantly improve the livelihoods of waste pickers – hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who currently carve meagre earnings from collecting plastic.




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The funds would be administered by a self-regulated global industry body, independently audited to ensure performance, accountability and transparency. To address concerns over governance costs, the Minderoo Foundation has committed to underwrite up to five years’ worth of audit fees totalling US$260 million (A$384 million), plus cover US$40 million (A$59 million) in start-up costs, subject to appropriate conditions.

The future is circular

Public pressure is mounting for action on plastics – and what is bad for the planet is ultimately bad for business. The alternatives to an industry-led approach are less appealing. Plastic bans deny us a useful product upon which our economies rely; taxes typically go directly to general revenue and are unlikely to be applied to plastic waste management. So, tax-derived funds are seldom transferred between nations, ignoring the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.

Our global discussions with companies throughout the plastics supply chain have revealed that the vast majority recognise the need to move away from a linear plastics economy. They also understand that a global, market-based mechanism is the only path to achieving the system-wide transformation required.

Society discards over 250 million tonnes of valuable polymer, worth at least a US$ 1,000 per tonne recycled, in plastic waste each year. Soon, if we do nothing, that could grow to 500 million tonnes per annum. What industry would allow half a trillion US dollars of waste each year? Recovering it is simply good business for the environment.The Conversation

Andrew Forrest, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, PhD Candidate in Marine Ecology, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

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

How recycling is actually sorted, and why Australia is quite bad at it


Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology

Recycling in Australia used to be fairly simple. Our older readers may remember bottle drives, paper and cardboard collections, and the trip to the scrap metal merchant to sell metals.

This is called, in recycling parlance, sorting the “streams”. It creates very clean recycling that requires little sorting at a plant.

But recycling got more complicated. As councils organised kerbside collection, it made less economic sense to sort at the kerb. Instead, trucks collected mixed recycling and took it to centralised sorting facilities.

The materials also changed, with glass often replaced by plastics. Plastics like the PET in drink bottles and HDPE in milk bottles were easy to separate and had a ready recycling market.

Then, when developing countries like China opened the floodgates to paper and plastics, there was no need to separate the seven categories of plastics. It was cheaper and easier for Australian companies to bundle it all up and send it to China for “recycling” – in 2017, some 600,000 tonnes.




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When China found they were the world’s dumping ground they shut the door and demanded only clean, separated plastics – and then only the ones that had a secondary market in China.

Suddenly Australia was expected to separate more carefully – and this cost money. Now the federal government has pledged A$20 million to boost Australia’s recycling industry.

But what is Australia’s recycling industry?

Right now, there are 193 material recovery facilities in Australia. Most are hand-sorted; nine are semi-automated, and nine are fully automated. These are nowhere near sufficient to sort Australia’s annual recycling.

There are two basic ways to sort recycling: mechanical-biological treatment plants, which sort mixed waste into low-grade recycling, and material recovery facilities, which have a stronger focus on extracting reusable stuff.

Here’s how they work.

Mechanical-biological treatment

MBT plants are in various stages of development in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. These plants take the rubbish we generate every day and inject it into a rotary drum (a bioreactor) that spins and is heated to 60–70℃.

The process shreds the waste and the organic wastes are stabilised and homogenised. Most of the water evaporates through a fermentation process in which microorganisms break down the organic material and release heat – much like a composting system.




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The material then leaves the reactor and passes over a screen that separates the organic waste. The organic waste then fermented and composted, then separated again using a smaller mesh screen. The smallest particles are sent back to the bioreactor drum to provide the microorganisms.

Meanwhile, the larger material from the first screening is sent to a wind separator where the lightweight material, like plastics, are blown the furthest, medium-weight materials, such as textiles, fall in the middle and the heaviest, like metal, glass and stone, fall immediately. The heaviest fraction is sent along a conveyor and metals are separated by a magnetic separator.

The remaining material is sent to another wind separator, along with any remaining material from the other fractions that cannot be separated, which separates combustibles and debris.

The debris (about 10% of the original waste) goes to landfill, and combustibles are sent to a facility that compresses the material into blocks for industrial fuel.




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Material recovery facilities

Material recovery facilities accept mixed recycling. The first step is putting recyclables on a conveyor belt where they are carried up to a sorting line.

In the more mechanical processes, people line up along the belt and rip open bags and remove contaminants such as non-recyclable plastic, used nappies and other rubbish, which then goes to landfill.

In the more automated systems, ripping open the bags can be done by machines and the sorting is done in the next stage.



The material then goes onto a scalping screen that sorts out the small foreign objects before passing over a screen in which flat materials such as cardboard pass over and the others drop down. The paper and cardboard go off to storage. Meanwhile, the material that has dropped through hits another screen that breaks any glass, which drops through the screen and is taken by conveyor belt to a recovery bin.

The leftover material goes to fibre quality-control stations where the fibre materials (such as paper) pass by operators who pick off any contaminants before the paper goes into another bin for baling and recycling.

This leaves the cans and plastic containers. Passing this stream over a magnet means any steel cans will be removed from the stream and collected.

Next, any fibre that has made it through the process is removed manually and the plastics are then sorted manually into individual types. The bottles are perforated mechanically so they do not explode when compressed.

With the plastic containers removed, the next step is to divert the aluminium. Powerful magnetic fields created by an eddy current separator throws non-iron metals, like aluminium, forward from the belt into a product bin and non-metals fall off the belt into a separate bin. Finally most of the materials are compressed and baled for efficient transport.

Automated sorting systems

The nine more modern facilities in Australia use optical sorting systems to take out the manual and mechanical sorting. The optical sorters detect anywhere between three and eight varieties of material.

A new facility in New South Wales can detect eight different types of material: aluminium, cardboard, glass, HDPE plastic, mixed paper, newspaper, PET plastic, and steel. The combined stream passes through a light beam which then instructs a set of high pressure air jets to direct the material to one of eight collection bins.




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As worldwide demand for high quality, clean recycling material increases, Australia must upgrade its technology. Incentives and financial help for recycling companies may be necessary to see Australia develop a viable domestic recycling industry.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

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

Indonesia has sent Australia’s recycling home – it’s time to clean up our act



Indonesia is not the only country to turn back contaminated waste.
FULLY HANDOKO/EPA/AAP

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

Indonesia has returned a container load of recyclables back to Australia, because the material did not meet stringent import requirements.

It is the latest Southeast Asian country to refuse Australia’s recycling waste. In January 2018, China stopped buying our recyclables until contamination was reduced significantly.

To achieve this, Australia needed to reduce contamination in commercial and household recycling, and improve our sorting facilities so they can identify and remove the types of materials causing concern.




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Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore


This should have been a wake-up call that we need to improve our recycling industry and take urgent steps to reduce our reliance on overseas destinations for our recyclables. But did we? Clearly, the answer is no.

Dealing with difficult waste

In July the Philippines turned away 69 containers (about 1,500 tonnes), of materials incorrectly labelled as plastic and containing unacceptable contaminants. Malaysia has also threatened to send recyclables back to the originating country if the loads contain contaminants.

Looking at photos of the material rejected by Indonesia, it is clearly a typical load of baled recyclables that could have come from any sorting facility in Australia. It contains recyclables, but also contamination like used nappies, clothing, food scraps, paper and cardboard in the plastic recycling, metals and plastic in the paper recycling and some containers that once had motor oil or detergents in them.

While I personally suspect it’s slightly over the top to call this “hazardous” material, as some news reports have – the same loads are shipped to some facilities in Australia – it is a moot point. Indonesia can set whatever rules they deem necessary to protect the health of their communities and environment.

Indonesia is not the only country to turn back contaminated waste.
FULLY HANDOKO/EPA/AAP

This continues after strong warnings that unless we provide clean recyclables, we will not have access to these overseas markets.

So what is contamination?

Recycling is basically divided into “streams”. Mostly these streams contain one or two types of materials. For example, we have a cardboard stream, plastic stream or in some instances commingled stream which contains plastic, aluminium, steel and glass containers.

“Contamination” refers to materials that are not wanted in that stream because they interfere with the proper treatment of a given load. Plastic in a load of cardboard and paper is contamination; so are clothes in a plastic load. It does not necessarily need to be toxic chemicals or other things that come to mind when we think of “contamination”.

However, containers used for detergents, disinfectants, and the broad range of household chemicals do contain residues. While some of these fluids and powders do get removed (often while materials are being baled), some residues remain and this can also cause issues for those wishing to use the recyclables as their raw materials.




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So it is no wonder Australian businesses are reluctant to use what we currently sort and send out as their raw materials. If the recyclables materials contain contaminants at a high level, then the business who could have used them would have to expend resources to clean up the loads. Apart from that cost, they then have to dispose of the unwanted materials to landfill.

Additionally, due to some uncertainty in the quality of the recyclables, manufacturers are concerned whether their products will be of the required standard and if not, will that affect the customer base. Remember, when recycled paper was first on the market there was some concern about inferior “whitness” and this affected sales. (Ironically, now most business use recycled paper this situation is somewhat reversed.)

How can we fix it?

Ultimately, the issue is not how we can get other countries to accept our waste. Australia needs to improve our capacity and willingness to use recycled materials ourselves.

We have seen progress recently with Australian companies using recycled materials in new and innovative ways. Plastics used in road construction or in building materials is just one example.

But unless our recycling is better sorted, it won’t be used by domestic companies. Even products made with recycled material need to be clean, safe and reliable.




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So what can we do about it? Of course, the obvious first step is to invest more into recycling facilities so they can sort more efficiently. However, we all need to take responsibility for what we put into the recycling at home or work. Many contaminants can easily be avoided with a little more care, so familiarise yourself with what can be recycled by your home council.

Finally, recycling is not a panacea. We need to seriously reduce the amount of waste we create, as individuals and a society. Without this, the problem will only continue to grow.




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The Conversation


Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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