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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Recycling plastic bottles is good, but reusing them is better


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.

Time to make fast fashion a problem for its makers, not charities



Textile waste a major source of landfill and pollution.
Swapan Photography/Shutterstock

Mark Liu, University of Technology Sydney

Returning our old clothes to big fashion chains – rather than taking them to charity stores – could make fast fashion companies pay for their waste and fuel vital recycling research. Even better if we all do it at once.

Public protests, such as Extinction Rebellion’s colourful catwalk that blocked roads in central London in April, have raised awareness yet done little to motivate governments to address the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry.

“The government is out of step with the public who are shocked by the fact that we are sending 300,000 tonnes of clothes a year to incineration or landfill,” remarked British MP Mary Creagh in June this year, after that country’s parliament rejected a proposed garment tax on the fashion industry. “Urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the earth.”

At last week’s G7 summit, French president and host Emmanuel Macron announced a fashion industry pact with 150 brands promising to reduce environmental impact.

Changes are not happening fast enough. Residual fashion waste averages 2.25 million tonnes per year in Australia, with an estimated clothing value of $500 million. By 2030, it is predicted that the fashion industry will use two Earths’ worth of resources, with the demand for clothing increasing by 63%. But consumers can act now to influence corporations.

If you’re not part of the solution…

Even those who don’t purchase “fast fashion” – a term used to describe clothes that reproduce the latest catwalk designs at high speed and low cost – bear the consequences as garment waste enters landfill, contaminates air, soil and water.

Fast fashion companies take looks from the catwalk to the shopping centre as quickly as possible.
www.shutterstock.com

While government and industry self-regulation have so far failed to make significant progress in this area, consumers have a role to play in protecting the environment.

Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse 2019 report quotes research showing more than 50% of consumers would switch brands if offered an environmentally and socially friendly alternative. But that sustainability is a key purchasing criterion for just 7% of consumers, trailing high quality, looking successful and receiving good value for money.

There are already opportunities for consumers to engage with fast fashion companies on this issue. H&M and Zara have collection boxes instore to collect old clothing and recycle it into new garments. H&M will also donate 3c for every kilogram of clothing returning in this way to fund research into recycling technologies.

Investing in technology

Unfortunately, clothing recycling technology is in its infancy and the vast infrastructure to make recycling commercially viable does not exist. Many materials made from recycled material are blended with polyester or elastane to make materials that cannot be recycled again.

London’s Graduate Fashion Week this year featured garments made from recycled plastic.
Rob Sheppard/Shutterstock

At the University of Technology Sydney we are developing new fabrics made from microalgae. This deep technology research requires significant investment, time, and expertise without a guaranteed outcome. Such research is not attractive to investors looking for an instant return. But this knowledge development is our only hope of building a truly circular fashion industry.

H&M’s commitment of 3c a kilogram may seem small. But if this commitment was applied to the 6000 kilograms of fast fashion dumped in Australian landfill every 10 minutes, it could add up to $180 every 10 minutes and $25,900 every 24 hours.

If Australians redirected fast fashion waste back to where it belongs, they could raise the equivalent of H&M’s Global Change Award, which funds sustainable fashion ideas to the tune of $1 million euro (A$1.6 million) within 64 days. Imagine the potential to raise money for research and infrastructure in this way given the 300,000 tonnes of waste dumped in the UK each year and the 16 million tonnes in the US.

Charity stores in Australia are flooded with fast fashion garments that they simply cannot use and then have to discard. According to the National Association of Charitable and Recycling Organisations, last year Australian charities paid $13 million a year to dispose of 60,000 tonnes of unusable donations.

Sending cheap cast-offs back to their producers would force big chains to pay for the afterlife of their garments, making mass overproduction less profitable.

Coordinating outfits and efforts

Returning clothing is a way of sending a clear signal to shareholders in a way that affects the profits of the company. It nudges employees within fast fashion companies to justify to their superiors and shareholders the need to move towards more sustainable practices.

Consumers could stage mass protests by organising to return used clothing to companies in a single day of action, burying the stores in their own waste and showing the scale of the problem.

A scene from the ABC’s War on Waste.
ABC

A single change in behaviour has grand potential. Locally, 68% of those who watched the ABC’s War on Waste second series reported
that they’d changed their habits. The series triggered Woolworths supermarket’s decision to remove 3.2 billion single-use plastic bags a year from its checkouts, inspired cafes and customers to adopt reusable cups, and led to hospitality businesses eliminating
single-use plastic straws.

It is time to make corporations pay for their waste, fund research and change their business models. If they continue to disregard their environmental responsibilities, citizens have the power to bury their stores in their own waste.

We can return our old clothes to fast fashion companies and change the industry, one garment at a time.The Conversation

Mark Liu, Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Fashion and Textiles Designer, University of Technology Sydney

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.

Don’t just blame government and business for the recycling crisis – it begins with us


Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

As the dramatic shutdown of major recycling company SKM this week has illustrated, recycling is not free.

Householders in Australia pay council rates for a recycling and garbage service. This fee is largely based on the costs of collecting, sorting and processing, and – importantly – what returns are likely from selling the end product.

However, since 2017 the price on the open market for mixed plastics has plummeted from about A$325 per tonne to A$100 per tonne. Mixed glass actually dropped to a negative value, which meant that generators were potentially paying for it to be taken away.




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On the other hand, prices for high-quality recycling (not mixed materials or items contaminated with food, for example) largely remained the same or slightly increased.

This shows the market for low-quality, poorly sorted recycling, which Australia has previously offloaded to China and other Southeast Asian countries, is ending.

Unless we improve our recycling industry, we must start sending more recyclable material to landfill – as is happening now in some Victoria councils.

So what can we do about it?

Reduce first

Reduction, fundamentally, comes before recycling. We need to avoid waste to begin with, in our homes and businesses.

As consumers, we should be vocal about seemingly contradictory practices by businesses. For example, supermarkets congratulate themselves on reducing plastic bags, but then use small plastic toys as marketing tools – not even making them out of recycled plastic. These toys are destined for disposal, potentially contaminating recycling streams, and not all consumers are happy.

Throw out recycling properly

It’s tempting, if you don’t know whether something is recyclable, to simply put it in the yellow bin and assume someone on the other end will “sort it out”. But in reality, incorrectly recycled material can contaminate entire loads of otherwise valuable and useful recyclables, diverting it to landfill.

Councils blame the recyclers for this, who blame the councils. Everyone blames state governments, and they in turn blame the recyclers.

Fundamentally though, we as the generators of waste must assume a high degree of responsibility. We are the ones putting contaminants into the recycling system that everyone else in the management structure must deal with.




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It’s our job to familiarise ourselves with what can and cannot be recycled – although, to be fair, this can vary widely from council to council, and should be made easier to check.

If we can clean up the recycling streams, markets should increase and prices for these commodities will similarly rise. This encourages those in the sector to improve their plant technology, and for others to enter in what would then be a more competitive market.

Develop the industry

Clean recycling still requires an established market to be profitable. Governments, as the single largest purchasers in Australia, can play an important role here.

The Victorian government has already committed to helping government agencies increase recycled content in their purchasing requirements. Other governments are doing likewise and this is a very positive step.

At a minimum, contracts and tenders should specify a certain level of recycled materials used in products sold to the government, or prefer those suppliers who do have recycled content.




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We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


One innovative approach where governments can use their purchasing power is with the use of plastic and glass recyclables in roads. Trials have been extremely positive.

In fact, the Australian Council of Recycling has suggested that using recycled material in construction for the Snowy 2.0 scheme would consume all the recyclables generated in Australia.

We need to chew and walk gum

The most important message is, just as there’s no single person or sector to blame for Australia’s dismal recycling situation, there’s no single solution. We all need to take more care with what we put in the bin. Governments around Australia should incentivise local manufacturers to use domestic recycling.




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Recycling companies should certainly improve their technology so they can produce higher-quality material, which can be sold at a profit.

And, as the current SKM debacle illustrates, governments need a plan B when the market breaks down.

Even with all of this, a sustainable domestic recycling industry is some way off. We urgently need to start doing the things we already know will work, rather than playing endless rounds of a pointless blame game.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.