Almost half of Australia’s packaging waste is not being recovered for recycling, according to the first comprehensive study to track the fate of used packaging materials.
Overall, 56% of packaging was recovered for recycling in 2017-18, according to our study, carried out at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and published by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, a not-for-profit group that aims to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and is leading the effort to implement the National Packaging Targets.
Only 32% of plastic packaging was recovered for recycling, whereas the figure for paper and cardboard was 72%.
Used packaging materials such as glass, paper, metal and plastic make up 15% of all recyclable waste generated in Australia, according to our calculations based on available government data. By taking a snapshot of our current performance in recovering these materials, we can identify which areas are most in need of attention. This will help us work towards a “circular economy” approach in which packaging materials are reclaimed, reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.
Explainer: what is the circular economy?
The chart below shows that the most significant losses to landfill happen before waste is collected for sorting. Households and businesses are still throwing recyclable packaging, approximately 32% of total packaging consumed, into red bins instead of into recycling.
The 56% recovery figure includes packaging material recovered for export, as well as materials that are currently stockpiled. This includes glass which is not currently in high demand for local manufacturing.
Waste exported overseas represents a significant proportion – about 34% – of total packaging waste recovered. Evidently, there is a clear opportunity to improve local waste management practices and grow local demand for products that contain recycled materials. This would help make Australia’s packaging system more resilient to fluctuations in global markets.
The biggest recent market shock was the recycling crisis sparked by China’s decision to limit the imports of large amounts of recyclable materials.
In April last year, state and federal environment ministers and local governments reacted to that crisis with the launch of the National Packaging Targets. This included a pledge to pursue circular economy principles.
In practice, this means avoiding packaging waste, improving local recovery of recyclables, and increasing the demand for products that contain recycled materials. Already we have seen major brands such as Unilever commit to using at least 25% locally sourced recycled plastic in packaging such as shampoo bottles. This is a big step in the right direction, and aligns with the trending global agenda to eliminate plastic pollution.
However, developing a circular economy for packaging in Australia requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain. This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector.
Better source separation is important and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle. These strategies are already supported by the new Australasian Recycling Label, which could potentially be mandated for all types of packaging.
A further consequence of better source separation is a reduction in the contamination of the collected materials. This would improve the efficiency of the material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort the mixed recyclables into separate streams for reprocessing.
What we also need is more and better data on packaging consumption and recycling infrastructure capabilities. Some future actions are clear, such as addressing problematic plastic packaging. Others decisions that might involve broad systemic interventions need more information about the best way to encourage packaging circularity. Key to success will be the willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving.
This article was coauthored by Brooke Donnelly, chief executive of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation.
Ben Madden, Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Over the weekend, Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued notices for a major recycling company to stop receiving waste at two of its sites.
While the full consequences of these notices are yet to be realised, in the short term this means at least one council will have to dump kerbside recycling in landfill.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s a result of China’s decision to stop accepting Australia’s recyclables, and a clear sign we’ve been playing catch-up but not focusing on sustainable solutions. We need to work out how to deal with recycling in Australia – and determine how much it will cost, and who will pay.
We’re missing a piece of the financial puzzle
Kerbside collections are of course funded by householders as part of their annual rates. After China stopped buying Australian recycling we saw the garbage component of rates rise, so the collection aspect of the costs seems to be addressed. But of course there are a range of materials that cannot be placed in kerbside bins, but can be recycled.
As reported recently in The Age, analysis by an environmental consultancy has found the prices consumers may have to pay to ensure there are systems in place to recycle a range of specific items. For example, it would cost A$16 to recycle a mattress. Given that my local landfill charges A$23 to dispose of a mattress, it seems to make economic sense to pay into a compulsory recycling scheme (and I would not have to transport the mattress to the landfill, which is another bonus).
However, the piece of the loop that is missing is the encouragement (by levies or incentives), for businesses to use more recycled materials in their products.
It does not make sense to collect and stockpile recyclable materials until commodity prices are high enough to justify sorting them. This habit makes us dependent on overseas markets and creates domestic issues.
Nor is it good to have a stop-start approach, in which recyclables are sorted properly when there is space, but sent to landfill when there is not (or have householders call the council fortnightly to see whether they should place their recycling bin out).
A recycling industry association has provided a ten-point plan for resolving what they consider the essential issues with recycling. This very positive list includes investing waste levy funds into recycling, providing incentives for companies to use more recycled material, and educating consumers and businesses on recycling issues.
Encouraging businesses to use more recycled material is crucial. Instead of just reporting how much of their waste is recycled rather than sent to landfill, all organisations should report on the percentage of materials they buy from recycled sources.
This would help consumers make better buying decisions, and give guidance for governments to target specific sectors or programs to increase the use of recyclables.
We need a “fresh eyes” approach to how we manage waste, focusing equally on the environmental, economic and social aspects of this issue. One barrier is the lack of a centralised approach by all three spheres of government. It doesn’t make sense for state or local governments to have to to manage this large-scale infrastructure issue in isolation.
The largest portion of responsibility for waste management lies with the generator, but that is not to say others may not have a level of involvement. We all have some responsibility for the waste we create in our own homes, and how we dispose of it. Besides recycling, that also means (where possible) avoiding and reducing trash, and buying items made with recyclables – this is called “closing of the loop”.
Some businesses have made significant efforts to reduce their dependence on virgin raw materials, and are using recycled material to either make or package their products. But we do not hear much about this.
Perhaps it is time for a scheme similar to the “Buy Australian” program or energy efficiency stars, which would enable consumers to readily identify the level of recycled material in a product. Currently it is very difficult to tell.
Retailers often say they’re driven by consumers in what they can provide, so why not use our supposed power to force improvements (and more importantly, reductions), in use of virgin materials?
The banning of plastic bags by supermarkets was consumer-driven – so now is the time to encourage companies to reduce their waste burden. Perhaps you can approach a retailer about excess packaging, or make sure you check the label to see if an item was made or packaged with recycled materials.
As we move towards a federal election we should also be asking what our political parties are proposing to do about our waste crisis. It’s time to ask local candidates about their sustainable plan for resolving Australia’s issues with recycling, waste management and reducing resource use.
Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India
The world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, according to a recent UN report, but only 20% is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing nations.
India generates more than two million tonnes of e-waste annually, and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries from around the world – including Australia.
We visited India to examine these conditions ourselves, and reveal some of the devastating effects e-waste recycling has on workers’ health and the environment.
More than 95% of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers. They are often referred to as “kabadiwalas” or “raddiwalas” who collect, dismantle and recycle it and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organisational system. Little has changed since India introduced e-waste management legislation in 2016.
We visited e-waste dismantlers on Delhi’s outskirts. Along the narrow and congested alleyways in Seelampur we encountered hundreds of people, including children, handling different types of electronic waste including discarded televisions, air-conditioners, computers, phones and batteries.
Squatting outside shop units they were busy dismantling these products and sorting circuit boards, capacitors, metals and other components (without proper tools, gloves, face masks or suitable footwear) to be sold on to other traders for further recycling.
Local people said the waste comes here from all over India. “You should have come here early morning, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” a trolley driver told us.
Seelampur is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India. Each day e-waste is dumped by the truckload for thousands of workers using crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium. The process involves acid burning and open incineration, creating toxic gases with severe health and environmental consequences.
Workers come to Seelampur desperate for work. We learned that workers can earn between 200 and 800 rupees (A$4-16) per day. Women and children are paid the least; men who are involved with the extraction of metals and acid-leeching are paid more.
Income is linked to how much workers dismantle and the quality of what is extracted. They work 8-10 hours per day, without any apparent regard for their own well-being. We were told by a local government representative that respiratory problems are reportedly common among those working in these filthy smoke-filled conditions.
Delhi has significant air and water pollution problems that authorities struggle to mitigate. We were surprised to learn that the recycling community does not like to discuss “pollution”, so as not to raise concerns that could result in a police raid. When we asked about the burning of e-waste, they denied it takes place. Locals were reluctant to talk to us in any detail. They live in fear that their trade will be shut down during one of the regular police patrols in an attempt to curb Delhi’s critical air and water problems.
As a result of this fear, e-waste burning and acid washing are often hidden from view in the outskirts of Delhi and the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or done at night when there is less risk of a police raid.
Incidentally, while moving around Seelampur we were shocked to see children playing in drains clogged with dumped waste. During the drier months drains can catch fire, often deliberately lit to reduce waste accumulation.
After our tour of Seelampur we visited Mandoli, a region near Delhi where we were told e-waste burning takes place. When we arrived and asked about e-waste recycling we were initially met with denials that such places exist. But after some persistence we were directed along narrow, rutted laneways to an industrial area flanked by fortified buildings with large locked metal doors and peephole slots not dissimilar to a prison.
We arranged entry to one of these units. Among the swirling clouds of thick, acrid smoke, four or so women were burning electrical cables over a coal fire to extract copper and other metals. They were reluctant to talk and very cautious with their replies, but they did tell us they were somewhat aware of the health and environmental implications of the work.
We could not stay more than a few minutes in these filthy conditions. As we left we asked an elderly gentleman if people here suffer from asthma or similar conditions. He claimed that deaths due to respiratory problems are common. We also learned that most of these units are illegal and operate at night to avoid detection. Pollution levels are often worse at night and affect the surrounding residential areas and even the prisoners at the nearby Mandoli Jail.
We had the luxury of being able to leave after our visit. It is devastating to think of the residents, workers and their children who spend their lives living among this toxic waste and breathing poisonous air.
Field trips such as this help illustrate a tragic paradox of e-waste recycling in developed versus developing nations. In Australia and many other advanced industrialised economies, e-waste collection is low and little is recycled. In India, e-waste collection and recycling rates are remarkably high.
This is all due to informal recyclers, the kabadiwalas or raddiwalas. They are resourceful enough to extract value at every stage of the recycling process, but this comes with a heavy toll to their health and the environment.
This article was co-written by Ms. Alankrita Soni, UNSW Alumni & practising Environmental Architect from India.
Last year many Australians were surprised to learn that around half of our plastic waste collected for recycling is exported, and up to 70% was going to China. So much of the world’s plastic was being sent to China that China imposed strict conditions on further imports. The decision sent ripples around the globe, leaving most advanced economies struggling to manage vast quantities of mixed plastics and mixed paper.
By July 2018, which is when the most recent data was available, plastic waste exports from Australia to China and Hong Kong reduced by 90%. Since then Southeast Asia has become the new destination for Australia’s recycled plastics, with 80-87% going to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Other countries have also begun to accept Australia’s plastics, including the Philippines and Myanmar.
But it looks like these countries may no longer deal with Australia’s detritus.
In the middle of last year Thailand and Vietnam announced restrictions on imports. Vietnam announced it would stop issuing import licences for plastic imports, as well as paper and metals, and Thailand plans to stop all imports by 2021. Malaysia has revoked some import permits and Indonesia has begun inspecting 100% of scrap import shipments.
Why are these countries restricting plastic imports?
The reason these countries are restricting plastic imports is because of serious environmental and labour issues with the way the majority of plastics are recycled. For example, in Vietnam more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold on to “craft villages”, where it is processed informally, mainly at a household scale.
Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20% of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing.
Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment. The discharge from a whole village of household processors concentrates the air and water pollution in the local area.
Before Vietnam’s ban on imports, craft villages such as Minh Khai, outside Hanoi, had more than 900 households recycling plastic scraps, processing 650 tonnes of plastics per day. Of this, 25-30% was discarded, and 7 million litres of wastewater from washing was discharged each day without proper treatment.
These plastic recycling villages existed before the China ban, but during 2018 the flow of plastics increased so much that households started running their operations 24 hours a day.
The rapid increase in household-level plastic recycling has been a great concern to local authorities, due to the hazardous nature of emissions to air and water. In addition, this new industry contributes to an already significant plastic litter problem in Vietnam.
Green growth or self-preservation?
A debate is now being waged in Vietnam, over whether a “green” recycling industry can be developed with better technology and regulations, or whether they must simply protect themselves from this flow of “waste”. Creating environmentally friendly plastic recycling in Vietnam will mean investment in new processing technology, enhancing supply chains, and improving the skills and training for workers in this industry.
Engineers at the Vietnam Cleaner Production Centre (which one of us, Thinh, is the director of) have been working on improving plastic processing systems to recycle water in the process, improve energy efficiency, switch to bio-based detergents and reduce impacts on workers. However, there is a long way to go to improve the vast number of these informal treatment systems.
What can we do in Australia?
While Australia’s contribution to the flow of plastics in Southeast Asia is small compared to that arriving from the United States, Japan and Europe, we estimate it still represents 50-60% of plastics collected for recycling in Australia.
Should we be sending our recyclables to countries that lack capacity to safely process it, and are already struggling to manage their own domestic waste? Should we participate in improving their industrial capacity? Or should we increase our own domestic capacity for recycling?
While there may be times it makes sense to export our plastics overseas where they are used for manufacturing, the plastics should be clean and uncontaminated. Processes should be in place to make sure they are recycled without causing added harm to communities and local environments.
Australia and other advanced economies need to think seriously about the future of exports, our own collection systems and our “waste” relationships with our neighbours.
Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Le Xuan Thinh, Director, VNCPC; Nguyen, Anh Tuan, Senior researcher, Environment Science Institute, and Samantha Sharpe, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Wrapped, sealed, boxed, cling-filmed and vacuum packed. We have become used to consumables being packaged in every way imaginable.
The history of “packaging” goes back to the first human settlements. First leaves, gourds and animals skins were used. Then ceramics, glass and tin. Then paper and cardboard. But with the invention of plastic and the celebration of “throwaway living” since the 1950s, the environmental costs of an overpackaged world have become manifest.
Plastic now litters the planet, contaminating ecosystems and posing a significant threat to wildlife and human health. Food and beverage packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste. Recycling, though important, has proven an incapable primary strategy to cope with the scale of plastic rubbish. In Australia, for example, just 11.8% of the 3.5 million tonnes of plastics consumed in 2016-2017 were recycled.
Initiatives to cut down on waste can initially be strongly resisted by consumers used to the convenience, as shown by the reaction to Australia’s two major supermarket chains phasing out free single-use plastic shopping bags. But after just three months, shoppers have adapted, and an estimated 1.5 billion bags have been prevented from entering the environment.
Can we dispose with our disposable mentality further, by doing something to cut down on all the packaging of our food and beverages?
Yes we can.
The emergence of zero-packaging food stores is challenging the idea that individually packaged items are a necessary feature of the modern food industry. These new businesses demonstrate how products can be offered without packaging. In doing so they provide both environmental and economic benefits.
The zero-packaging alternative
Zero-packaging shops, sometimes known as zero-waste grocery stores, allow customers to bring and refill their own containers. They offer food products (cereals, pasta, oils) and even household products (soap, dishwashing powder). You simply bring your own jars and containers and buy as little or as much as you need.
These stores can already be found in many countries across the world. They are more than just individual trading businesses making a small difference.
They are part of an important and growing trend promoting an environmentally sustainable “reuse” mentality. Their way of doing business shows we can change the current ‘linear’ economic system in which we continuously take, make, use and throw away materials.
Rethinking the system
Food packaging is part and parcel of a globalised food market. The greater the distance that food travels, the more packaging is needed.
Zero-packaging stores encourage sourcing locally. They can therefore play an important role in enhancing local economy and supporting local producers. They can help break globalised agribusiness monopolies, regenerating the diversity of rural enterprises and communities. The book Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market illustrates the benefits of reclaiming back the food industry.
Packaging also contributes to another problem with the current industrialised food system. It doubles as an advertising tool, using all the psychological tricks that marketers have to persuade us to buy a brand. These strategies appeal to desire, encouraging people to buy more than what they really need. This has arguably exacerbated problems such as obesity and food waste. It has given multinational conglomerates with large marketing budgets an advantage over small and local producers.
Not all of packaging is wasteful. It can stop food spoiling, for example, and enables us to enjoy foods not locally produced. But what is driving the growth of the global food packaging market – expected to be worth US$411.3 billion by 2025 – is rising demand for single-serve and portable food packs due to “lifestyle changes”. Most of us recognise these are not lifestyle changes for the better; they are the result of us spending more time working or commuting, and eating more processed and unhealthier food.
Zero-packaging stores show, in their own small way, a viable and healthier alternative to the current system. Both for ourselves, local economies and the planet.
While these shops are still niche, governments interested in human and environmental health can help them grow. Bans on plastic bags point to what is possible.
How easily we have adapted to no longer having those bags to carry food a few metres to the car and then to the kitchen show that we, as consumers, can change our behaviour. We can choose, when possible, unpacked products. There is, of course, a small sacrifice in the form of convenience, but we just might find that we benefit more, both personally and for a greater environmental, economic and social good.
A global plastic waste crisis is building, with major implications for health and the environment. Under its so-called “National Sword” policy, China has sharply reduced imports of foreign scrap materials. As a result, piles of plastic waste are building up in ports and recycling facilities across the United States.
In response, support is growing nationally and worldwide for banning or restricting single-use consumer plastics, such as straws and grocery bags. These efforts are also spurred by chilling findings about how micro-plastics travel through oceans and waterways and up the food chain.
I have studied global trade in hazardous wastes for many years and am currently completing a book on the global politics of waste. In my view, today’s unprecedented level of public concern is an opportunity to innovate. There is growing interest in improving plastic recycling in the United States. This means getting consumers to clean and sort recyclables, investing in better technologies for sorting and reusing waste plastics, and creating incentives for producers to buy and use recycled plastic.
Critiques of recycling are not new, and critiques of recycling plastic are many, but I still believe it makes sense to expand, not abandon, the system. This will require large-scale investment and, in the long term, implementing upstream policies, including product bans.
Easy to use, hard to destroy
Plastics make products lighter, cheaper, easier to assemble and more disposable. They also generate waste, both at the start of their life cycles – the petrochemicals industry is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – and after disposal.
The biggest domestic use by far for plastic resin is packaging (34 percent in 2017), followed by consumer and institutional goods (20 percent) and construction (17 percent). Many products’ useful lives can be measured in minutes. Others, especially engineered and industrial plastics, have a longer life – up to 35 years for building and construction products.
After disposal, plastic products take anywhere from five to 600 years to break down. Many degrade into micro-plastic fragments that effectively last forever. Rather like J.R.R. Tolkien’s One Ring, plastics can be permanently destroyed only through incineration at extremely high temperatures.
Why the United States recycles so little plastic
Less than 10 percent of discarded plastics entered the recycling stream in the United States in 2015, compared with 39.1 percent in the European Union and 22 percent in China. Another 15 percent of U.S. plastic waste is burned in waste-to-energy facilities. The remaining 75 percent goes to landfills. These figures do not include any dumping or illegal disposal.
Even the most easily recyclable plastics have a lengthy journey from the recycling bin to their final destinations. Many barriers have become painfully apparent since China, which until recently accepted half of all U.S. plastic scrap, implemented its crackdown on March 1, 2018.
First, there are many different types of plastics. Of the seven resin identification codes stamped on the bottom of plastic containers, only 1’s and 2’s are easily recyclable. Public education campaigns have lagged, particularly with respect to cleaning and preparing plastics for recycling. Getting consumers to commit to more stringent systems is critical. But scolding can backfire, as experience with food waste shows.
Another factor is U.S. reliance on single-stream recycling systems, in which all recyclables are placed in the same receptacle. This approach is easier for consumers but produces a mixed stream of materials that is difficult and expensive to sort and clean at recycling facilities.
The United States currently has 633 materials recycling facilities, which can clean, sort and bale a total of 100,000 tons of recyclables per day. Today they are under growing pressure as scrap piles up. Even before China’s restrictions went into effect, materials recycling facilities operators threw out around half of what they received because of contamination. Most are not equipped to meet China’s stringent new contamination standards, and their processing rates have slowed – but garbage production rates have not.
Finally, since China was the U.S. plastic scrap market’s main buyer, its ban has eliminated a key revenue stream for municipal governments. As a result, some waste collection agencies are suspending curbside pickup, while others are raising prices. All 50 states have been affected to some extent.
No silver bullets
Numerous public and private entities are working to find a more viable solution for plastics recycling. They include plastics producers and recyclers, corporations such as Coca-Cola, colleges and universities, foundations, international organizations, advocacy groups and state governments.
Upgrading materials recycling facilities and expanding domestic markets for plastic scrap is an obvious priority but will require large-scale investments. Increasing waste-to-energy incineration is another option. Sweden relies on this approach to maintain its zero waste model.
But incineration is deeply controversial in the United States, where it has declined since 2001, partly due to strong opposition from host communities. Zero-waste and anti-incineration advocates have heavily criticized initiatives such as the Hefty EnergyBag Program, a recent pilot initiative in Omaha, Nebraska to divert plastics to energy production. But small companies like Salt Lake City-based Renewlogy are working to develop newer, cleaner ways to convert plastics to energy.
Efforts to cut plastic use in the United States and other wealthy countries are focusing on single-use products. Initiatives such as plastic straw and bag bans build awareness, but may not significantly reduce the problem of plastic trash by themselves. For example, plastic straws account for only 0.03 percent of the plastic that is likely to enter the oceans in any given year.
To stem ocean plastic pollution, better waste management on land is critical, including steps to combat illegal dumping and manage hard-to-recycle plastics. Examples include preventing BPA leaching from discarded products, dechlorinating polyvinyl chloride products, on-site recycling of 3D printer waste, and making virgin-quality plastic out of used polypropylene.
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The European Union is developing a circular economy platform that contains a multi-part strategy to increase plastics recycling and control waste. It includes making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and reducing leakage of plastic products into the environment. The United States is unlikely to adopt such sweeping policies at the national level. But for cities and states, especially those where support for environmental protection is strong, it could be a more attainable vision.