Millions of face masks are being thrown away during COVID-19. Here’s how to choose the best one for the planet



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Mayuri Wijayasundara, Deakin University

Face masks are part of our daily lives during the pandemic. Many are made from plastics and designed to be used just once, which means thousands of tonnes of extra waste going to landfill.

Masks may help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But according to one estimate, if everyone in the United Kingdom used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

Evidence also suggests masks may be a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.

So let’s look at how face masks might be designed to cause minimal harm to the environment, while still doing their job – and which type is best for you.

A woman holding and wearing an N95 mask
N95 masks are used in hospital settings.
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Circular thinking

China is the world’s biggest face mask manufacturer. Its daily output of face masks reportedly reached 116 million units in February this year. That creates a big waste management problem around the world.

One way to address this is to adopt “circular design” principles. This thinking seeks to reduce waste and pollution through product design, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.




Read more:
Which face mask should I wear?


When it comes to face masks, the three common types are cloth, surgical and N-95. N-95 masks offer the highest level of protection, blocking about 95% of airborne particles. Cloth masks are designed to be used more than once, while surgical and N-95 masks are usually intended for single use.

Face masks may consist of one or more layers, each with different functions:

  • an outermost layer, designed to repel liquids such as water
  • the innermost layer, which absorbs moisture and allows comfort and breathability
  • a non-absorbent middle layer, to filter particles.
Two people watching a sports match wearing masks
Surgical masks are generally intended as single-use items.
BrendanThorne/AAP

Each type of mask is made of different materials and used in varying settings:

– N-95 masks: These are designed to protect the wearer from 95% of airborne particles and are largely worn by health workers. N-95 masks are designed to fit closely to the face and are usually worn only once. N-95 masks comprise:

  • a strap (polyisoprene)
  • staples (steel)
  • nose foam (polyurethane)
  • nose clip (aluminum)
  • filter (polypropylene)
  • valve diaphragm (polyisoprene).

– Surgical masks: These are designed to protect sterile environments from the wearer, acting as barrier to droplets or aerosols. Generally intended as single-use items, they comprise mostly polypropylene between two layers of non-woven fabric.

– Cloth masks: These types of masks are worn by the general public. Some are homemade from fabric scraps or old clothing. They may be wholly reusable, or partially reusable with replaceable filters that must be disposed of.

These masks typically comprise an outer layer of polyester or polypropylene (or in some cases, cotton), and an inner layer designed for breathability and comfort – usually cotton or a cotton-polyester blend.

Research suggests cloth masks are less effective at filtering particles than medical masks, but may may give some protection if well-fitted and properly designed. Health advice is available to help guide their use.

Cloth masks
Many cloth masks are handmade, and can be reused.
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Designing for a healthier environment

It’s important to note that any attempt to redesign face masks must ensure they offer adequate protection to the wearer. Where masks are used in a medical setting, design changes must also meet official standards such as barrier efficiency, breathing capacity and fire resistance.

With this in mind, reducing the environmental harm caused by masks could be done in several ways:

– Design with more reusable parts

Evidence suggests reusable cloth masks perform almost as well as single-use masks, but without the associated waste. One life cycle assessment conducted in the UK found masks that could be washed and reused were the best option for the environment. Reusable masks with replaceable filters were the second-best option.

The study also found having a higher number of masks in rotation to allow for machine washing was better for the environment than manual washing.

– Make masks easier to dispose of or recyle

In high-risk settings such as hospitals and clinics, the reuse of masks may not be possible or desirable, meaning they must be disposed of. In medical settings, there are systems in place for disposal of such protective gear, which usually involves segregation and incineration.

But the general public must dispose of masks themselves. Because masks usually comprise different materials, this can be complicated. For example, recovering the components of a N-95 mask for recycling would involve putting the straps, nose foam, filter and valve in one bin and the metal staples and nose clip in another. And some recyclers may see mask recycling as a health risk. These difficulties mean masks often end up in landfill.

Masks would be easier to recycle if the were made of fewer materials and were easy to disassemble.

– Use biodegradable materials

For single-use items, placing synthetics with biodegradable materials would be a first step in circular design thinking.

The abaca plant, a relative of the banana tree, offers one potential option. Its leaf fibre reportedly repels water better than traditional face masks, is as strong as polymer and decomposes within two months. Most abaca is currently produced in the Philippines.

Face mask on the ground in front of bins
Recycling of face masks can be complicated.
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Which mask should you choose?

From a purely environmental perspective, research suggests owning multiple reusable face masks, and machine-washing them together, is the best option. Using filters with reusable face masks is a second-best option.

But when choosing a mask, consider where you will wear it. Unless cloth masks are shown to be as effective as other masks, health-care workers should not use them. But they may be suitable in low-risk everyday settings.

In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.




Read more:
Cloth masks do protect the wearer – breathing in less coronavirus means you get less sick


The Conversation


Mayuri Wijayasundara, Lecturer, Deakin University

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

New Zealand invests in growing its domestic recycling industry to create jobs and dump less rubbish at landfills



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Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand’s government recently put more than NZ$160 million towards developing a domestic recycling sector to create jobs as part of its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealanders recycle 1.3 million tonnes of materials each year, but 70% is currently exported. A recent NZ$36.7 million funding boost to upgrade recycling plants throughout the country followed a NZ$124 million injection into recycling infrastructure to grow processing capacity onshore. The investment signals a focus on supporting services that create employment and increase efficiency or reduce waste.

The potential for expansion in onshore processing of recyclable waste is enormous – and it could lead to 3.1 million tonnes of waste being diverted from landfills. But it will only work if it is part of a strategy with clear and measurable targets.

COVID-19 impacts

During New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown between March and May, general rubbish collection was classed as an essential service and continued to operate. But recycling was sporadic.

Whether or not recycling services continued depended on storage space and the ability to separate recyclables under lockdown conditions. Facilities that relied on manual sorting could not meet those requirements and their recycling was sent to landfill. Only recycling plants with automated sorting could operate.

New Zealand’s reliance on international markets showed a lack of resilience in the waste management system. Any changes in international prices were duplicated in New Zealand and while exports could continue under tighter border controls, it was no longer economically viable to do so for certain recyclable materials.

International cardboard and paper markets collapsed and operators without sufficient storage space sent materials to landfill. Most plastics became uneconomic to recycle.

Recycling and rubbish bins
New Zealanders recycle 1.3 million tonnes each year.
Shutterstock/Josie Garner

In contrast, for materials processed in New Zealand — including glass, metals and some plastics — recycling remains viable. Many local authorities are now limiting their plastic collections to those types that have expanding onshore processing capacity.

Soft packaging plastics are also being collected again, but only in some places and in smaller quantities than at the height of the soft plastics recycling scheme, to be turned into fence posts and other farm materials.




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The investment in onshore processing facilities is part of a move towards a circular economy. The government provided the capital for plants to recycle PET plastics, used to make most drink bottles and food trays. PET plastics can be reprocessed several times.

This means items such as meat trays previously made from polystyrene, which is not recyclable from households, could be made from fully recyclable PET. Some of the most recent funding goes towards providing automatic optical sorters to allow recycling plants to keep operating under lockdown conditions.

Regulation changes

The government also announced an expansion of the landfill levy to cover more types of landfills and for those that accept household wastea progressive increase from NZ$10 to NZ$60 per tonne of waste.

This will provide more money for the Waste Minimisation Fund, which in turn funds projects that lead to more onshore processing and jobs.

Last year’s ban on single-use plastic bags took more than a billion bags out of circulation, which represents about 180 tonnes of plastic that is not landfilled. But this is a small portion of the 3.7 million tonnes of waste that go to landfill each year.

More substantial diversion schemes include mandatory product stewardship schemes currently being implemented for tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases, farm plastics and packaging.

An example of the potential gains for product stewardship schemes is e-waste. Currently New Zealand produces about 80,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, but recycles only about 2% (1,600 tonnes), most of which goes offshore for processing. Under the scheme, e-waste will be brought to collection depots and more will be processed onshore.

Landfilling New Zealand’s total annual e-waste provides about 50 jobs. Recycling it could create 200 jobs and reusing it is estimated to provide work for 6,400 people.




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Waste not, want not: Morrison government’s $1b recycling plan must include avoiding waste in the first place


But all these initiatives are not enough. We need a coordinated strategy with clear targets.

The current Waste Strategy has only two goals: to reduce the harmful effects of waste and improve resource use efficiency. Such vague goals have resulted in a 37% increase in waste disposal to landfill in the last decade.

An earlier 2002 strategy achieved significantly better progress. The challenge is clear. A government strategy with measurable targets for waste diversion from landfill can lead us to better resource use and more jobs.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.

What makes people switch to reusable cups? It’s not discounts, it’s what others do



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Sukhbir Sandhu, University of South Australia; Robert Crocker, University of South Australia, and Sumit Lodhia, University of South Australia

People are more likely to use re-usable coffee cups if they see others doing it, or if cafe owners charge extra for throwaway coffee cups, our research has found.

Our study also found people would be more likely to properly dispose of compostable cups if councils provided dedicated organic waste bins. Alternatively, councils could provide facilities allowing people to rinse compostable cups before putting them in a recycling bin.

The need to find ways to encourage Australians to quit throwaway coffee cups has never been more urgent. About 1 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown into landfill sites across Australia annually, because the polyethylene lining that makes them leak-proof also makes them unrecyclable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reportedly driven a surge in throwaway cup use as many cafes refused reusable cups at the height of the pandemic.

In places where reusable cups are allowed, however, coffee drinkers, cafe owners and local governments can use insights from behavioural science to discourage use of throwaway cups.




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The ‘recycling crisis’ may be here to stay


Coffee drinkers: show off your reusable cup

We interviewed consumers, café owners and policy makers in South Australia, and unobtrusively observed customer behaviour in cafes for around 50 hours.

One finding became very clear: people mimic each other. Customers we interviewed told us over and over that watching their colleagues bring in their reusable coffee cups (such as a KeepCup) made them change their habits. As one coffee drinker told us:

I started using a KeepCup because one of my other staff members was using a KeepCup and I was like, hmm, that’s very environmentally conscious of her.

As more consumers start using reusable coffee cups, the practice becomes ever more socially acceptable.

If others start seeing you use your reusable cup, they’re more likely to follow suit.
Shutterstock

One of our interviewees told us she initially felt “scabby” bringing her reusable cup but as more consumers did so, she felt more confident:

At first, I would not walk across the road from work holding a cup coming here [to the cafe]. I’d just feel scabby. Because I would have been the minority. It probably was a bit less socially acceptable, but it’s probably more socially acceptable now because when I’m there I do see people walk in with their cups.

The best part is that you do not even have to nudge and preach to others (although you can if you like!).

So, coffee drinkers: if you want to make a difference, one of the easiest and best things you can do is to take your reusable coffee cup to the cafe.

You may not be aware of it, but the signalling effects are strong. Your colleagues will gradually notice and start bringing in their own reusable cups.

Cafe owners: discounts for reusable cup use don’t work

Many cafe owners offer discounts ranging from 10c – A$1 to customers who bring in their own reusable cups.

But our findings reveal these discounts are ineffective in changing consumer behaviour.

Billions of single use coffee cups end up in landfill every year.
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A cafe owner we interviewed described how, despite providing a 20c discount for reusable cups, she didn’t think saving money motivated her customers:

The regulars were people who’d happily drop in a dollar tip into the jar kept on the counter. They were therefore not that concerned about 20c discount.

We know from previous behavioural psychology literature consumers are more likely to be what’s called “loss averse” as opposed to “gain seekers”. In other words, people hate paying extra for takeaway coffee cups more than they like getting a discount for bringing their reusable cups.

So, if you own a cafe, focus on making consumers pay extra for choosing takeaway coffee cups rather than offering discounts for reusable cup use. It’s more likely to motivate customers.

Policy makers: make proper disposal of compostable cups easy

Compostable cups can, in theory, be recycled. But they also end up in landfill because of a lack of appropriate bins and public waste infrastructure.

Customers often feel uncertain about how and where to dispose them. A council officer we interviewed stressed:

In the case of compostable cups, it is not solely a matter of ensuring that the cups end up in any bin, they must end up in the correct bin […] in order for compostable cups to be recycled, they must be placed in a bin dedicated to organic waste or, alternatively, rinsed and placed in a recycling bin.

Currently, however, most cities don’t have enough organic bins or facilities to allow people to rinse compostable cups before putting them in recycling bins.

Councils and city governments can address this by introducing organic waste bins as a part of the street waste infrastructure to reduce the number of compostable cups ending up in landfill.

Customers often feel uncertain about how and where to dispose of compostable cups.
Shutterstock

Changing habits is hard but collectively, we can rewrite the waste story.

Three easy ways to do that are to bring your own reusable cup, charge extra for throwaway coffee cups and make it easy for people to recycle compostable cups.




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Avoiding single-use plastic was becoming normal, until coronavirus. Here’s how we can return to good habits


The Conversation


Sukhbir Sandhu, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Ethics, University of South Australia; Robert Crocker, Senior Lecturer, Sustainable Design Theory, University of South Australia, and Sumit Lodhia, Professor of Accounting, University of South Australia

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

Waste not, want not: Morrison government’s $1b recycling plan must include avoiding waste in the first place



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

The federal government today announced A$190 million in funding for new recycling infrastructure, as it seeks to divert more than ten million tonnes of waste from landfill and create 10,000 jobs.

The plan, dubbed the Recycling Modernisation Fund, requires matching funding from the states and territories. The federal government hopes it will attract A$600 million in private investment, bringing the total plan to about A$1 billion.

The policy is a welcome step to addressing Australia’s waste crisis. In 2016-17, Australians generated 67 million tonnes of waste, and the volume is growing.

Australia’s domestic recycling industry cannot sort the types and volumes of materials we generate, and recent waste import bans in other countries mean our waste often has nowhere to go.

But recycling infrastructure alone is not enough to solve Australia’s waste problem. We must also focus on waste avoidance, reducing contamination and creating markets for recycled materials.

Waste avoidance is even more important than recycling.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A home-grown problem

In early 2018, China began restricting the import of recyclables from many countries, including Australia, arguing it was too contaminated to recycle. Several other countries including India and Taiwan soon followed.

The move sent the Australian waste management industry into a spin. Recyclable material such as plastic, paper, glass and tyres was stockpiled in warehouses or worse, dumped in landfill.




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


It was clear Australia needed to start processing more of its waste onshore, and pressure was on governments to find a solution. In 2019, state and federal governments announced a waste export ban.

Then came today’s announcement. In addition to the A$190 million for recycling infrastructure announced, the federal government will:

  • spend A$35 million on meeting its commitments under the National Waste Policy Action Plan

  • spend A$24.6 million on Commonwealth commitments to improve national waste data and determine if we’re meeting recycling targets

  • introduce new federal waste legislation to formalise the waste export ban and encourage companies to take responsibility for the waste they create.

But key questions remain: will the full funding package be delivered, and will it be spent where it’s needed?

Overseas bans on foreign waste pose a problem for Australia.
Fully Handoko/EPA

Clarity is needed

The Commonwealth says its funding is contingent on contributions from industry, states and territories. It’s not clear what happens to the plan if this co-funding does not eventuate.

Figures from the Australian Council of Recyclers shows state governments have not always been willing to spend on waste management. Of about A$2.6 billion in waste levies collected from businesses and households over the past two years, only 16.7% has been spent on waste, recycling and resource recovery.

There’s been a recent increase in the volume and type of materials placed into recycling and waste streams. But a lack of funding to date meant the industry struggled to manage these changes.

Some state governments have recently made positive moves towards spending on waste management infrastructure, and it’s not clear what the federal plan means for these commitments. Victoria, for example, has a A$300 million plan to transform the recycling sector. Will it now be asked to spend more?

Recycling infrastructure is not enough

The federal announcement made no mention of the three other pillars in successful waste management: waste avoidance, reducing contamination and creating markets for recycled materials.

The 2018 National Waste Policy says waste “avoidance” is the first principle in waste management, stating:

Prioritise waste avoidance, encourage efficient use, reuse and repair. Design products so waste is minimised, they are made to last and we can more easily recover materials.

States have collected billions in waste levies, but spent little on the problem.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Avoiding the generation of waste in the first place reduces the need for recycling. Waste avoidance also means we consume less resources, which is good for the planet and our economy.

Addressing contamination in our recycling streams is also vital. Contaminants include soft plastics, disposable nappies and textiles. If these items end up in this stream, recyclers must remove and dispose of them, adding time and costs to the process.

Addressing the contamination issue would also reduce the amount of new infrastructure required.

Public education and enforcement is urgently needed to reduce recycling contamination and increase waste avoidance, yet government action has been lacking in this area.

Businesses have great potential to reduce costs associated with managing waste. This includes reducing the waste of raw materials as well as improving the segregation of wastes and recyclables. Funding is desperately needed to help businesses implement these changes.

The federal government says the new funding could be used for small, portable waste-sorting facilities. This is a great idea. They could be located in rural and regional areas, and even at large events so materials can be effectively sorted at the source. This would make sorting more efficient and may also reduce the need for waste transport.




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Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis we need a strong market for recycled products


And of course, there’s no use producing recycled materials if no-one wants to buy them. Plenty of products could be produced using recycled glass, plastics, textiles and so on, but the practice in Australia is fairly limited. One promising example involves using glass and plastic in road bases.

Governments, business and even consumers can do more to demand that the products they buy contain a proportion of recycled materials, where its possible for a manufacturer to do so.

Why send material to landfill when it can be recycled?
AAP

A sustainable future

The government’s funding to improve waste data is welcome, and will allow improvements to the waste system to be accurately measured. Currently, many waste databases measure measure our recycling rate according to what goes into the recycling bins, rather than what actually ends up being recycled.

Spending to support actions under the National Waste Policy is also positive, as long as it spent primarily on reducing waste from being created in the first place.

Done right, better waste management can stimulate the economy and help improve the environment. Today’s announcement is a good step, but more detail is needed. Clearly though, it’s time for Australians to think more carefully about the materials we dispose of, and put them to better use.




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Recycling plastic bottles is good, but reusing them is better


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.

Using lots of plastic packaging during the coronavirus crisis? You’re not alone


Daiane Scaraboto, University of Melbourne; Alison M Joubert, The University of Queensland, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos, The University of Queensland

In eight years, US environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer had never sent an item of rubbish to landfill. But last month, in an impassioned post to her 383,000 Instagram followers, she admitted the reality of COVID-19 has changed that.

I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn’t recyclable in NYC (New York City) recycling or maybe even anywhere … why would I go against something that I have actively prioritised and promoted?

Singer wrote that as the seriousness of COVID-19 dawned, she stocked up on items she’d need if confined to her home for a long period – much of it packaged in plastic.

Her confession encapsulates how the pandemic has challenged those of us who are trying to reduce our waste. Many sustainability-conscious people may now find themselves with cupboards stocked with plastic bottles of hand sanitiser, disposable wipes and takeaway food containers.

So let’s look at why this is happening, and what to do about it.

Sustainability out the window

We research how consumers respond to change, such as why consumers largely resisted single-use plastic bag bans. Recently we’ve explored how the coronavirus has changed the use of plastic bags, containers and other disposable products.

Amid understandable concern over health and hygiene during the pandemic, the problem of disposable plastics has taken a back seat.

For example, Coles’ home delivery service is delivering items in plastic bags (albeit reusable ones) and many coffee shops have banned reusable mugs, including global Starbucks branches.




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Restaurants and other food businesses can now only offer home delivery or takeaway options. Many won’t allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables which generate plastic waste. This means many consumers can’t reduce their plastic waste, even if they wanted to.

Demand for products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, they’re also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.

And the imperative to prevent the spread of coronavirus means tonnes of medical waste is being generated. For example, hospitals and aged care facilities have been advised to double-bag clinical waste from COVID-19 patients. While this is a necessary measure, it adds to the plastic waste problem.

Many cafes will not accept reusable cups during the health crisis.
The Conversation

Cause for hope

Sustainability and recycling efforts are continuing. Soft plastics recycler Red Cycle is still operating. However many dropoff points for soft plastics, such as schools and council buildings, are closed, and some supermarkets have removed their dropoff bins.

Boomerang Alliance’s Plastic Free Places program has launched a guide for cafes and restaurants during COVID-19. It shows how to avoid single-use plastics, and what compostable packaging alternatives are available.

As the guide notes, “next year the coronavirus will hopefully be a thing of the past but plastic pollution won’t be. It’s important that we don’t increase plastic waste and litter in the meantime.”

Old habits die hard

In the US, lobbyists for the plastic industry have taken advantage of health fears by arguing single-use plastic bags are a more hygienic option than reusable ones. Plastic bag bans have since been rolled back in the US and elsewhere.

However, there is little evidence to show plastic bags are a safer option, and at least reusable cloth bags can be washed.

A relaxation on plastic bag bans – even if temporary – is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behaviour. Research shows one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviours is to break old habits and adopt new ones. Once people return to using plastic bags, the practice becomes normalised again.

In Europe, the plastic industry is using the threat of coronavirus contamination to push back against a ban on single-use plastics such as food containers and cutlery.

Such reframing of plastic as a “protective” health material can divert attention from its dangers to the environment. Prior research, as well as our preliminary findings, suggest these meanings matter when it comes to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviours.




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Many people are using their time at home to clear out items they no longer need. However, most second-hand and charity shops are closed, so items that might have had a second life end up in landfill.

Similarly, many tool, book and toy libraries are closed, meaning some people will be buying items they might otherwise have borrowed.

Once consumers go back to using plastic bags, it will take time to break the habit again.
Darren England/AAP

What to do

We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, reuse what you have, and try to store rather than throw out items for donation or recycling.

Talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Use the time to upskill your coffee-making at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.

Above all, be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.




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We organised a conference for 570 people without using plastic. Here’s how it went


The Conversation


Daiane Scaraboto, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Melbourne; Alison M Joubert, Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Queensland, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos, Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Queensland

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

Morrison government will use purchasing power to encourage plastics recycling


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government will use its procurement policy to encourage the recycling of plastics, as well as committing financial assistance for upgrading infrastructure to boost the capacity for this waste to be reused.

Scott Morrison will announce the initiatives to a national conference in Canberra on Monday that is looking at the challenge of dealing with this escalating and environmentally destructive problem. The meeting is attended by industry, government and community representatives.

The prime minister, who has previously highlighted better management of plastics waste as a priority for his government, will emphasise that for major change “the only way forward is in partnership – working with our neighbours; state, territory and local governments; industry, our manufacturing sector and supermarkets; waste operators, and with consumers and communities”.

In a speech circulated ahead of delivery he proposes “three pillars” for tackling the problem: taking responsibility for the waste; encouraging demand for recycled products; and expanding industry capability.

Plastics “are choking our oceans. Scientists estimate that in just 30 years’ time the weight of plastics in our oceans will exceed the weight of fish in our oceans. That’s appalling.

“Taking responsibility means recognising the problems we are contributing to – and it also means keeping faith with the Australian people who recycle,” Morrison says.

“Only 12% of plastic put out in the yellow bin for recycling is actually recycled. Australians don’t expect their waste to be exported to someone’s village or waterway.”

Morrison will meet state and territory leaders at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) next month to finalise a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

He stresses this isn’t to ban the export of value-added recyclable materials.

Morrison says more investment is much needed in the recycling industry; this and collection systems are under “severe strain”. Investment is needed in “technological innovation that maximises the value of the recycled product and minimises the costs as well”. Only 8% of the $2.6 billion states and territories collected in waste levies over 2018-19 has been reinvested in infrastructure and technology.

“The Commonwealth stands ready to co-invest in these critical facilities with state and territory governments, and with industry”, he says. “We will invest with governments and with industry on a 1 to 1 to 1 basis.” Details will come closer to the May budget, Morrison said.

The waste sector employs 50,000 and generates more than $15 billion annually, Morrison says.

“For every 10,000 tonnes of waste sent to landfill, 2.8 direct jobs are created. But if we recycle the same waste, 9.2 direct jobs are created.

“According to the Australian Council of Recycling, recycling more domestically could create more than 5,000 new jobs.”

With a ban on waste plastic being exported, there will be more in Australia to reuse – which means finding ways of encouraging demand for recycled products. Both industry and government need to do this, Morrison says.

As the first of a number of measures the government will take, its procurement guidelines will be rewritten “to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money”.

He instanced a number of examples of innovative recycling, These included “recycled plastic into asphalt … a one kilometre, two-lane stretch [of road] uses up to half a million plastic bags”, as well as into picnic tables, bollards and gardening products.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis we need a strong market for recycled products


Jenni Downes, Monash University

Australia is still grappling with what to do with the glut of recyclable material after China closed most of its market to our recycling in 2018.

Now the Victorian government has released the first major change to state recycling policy: a consistent kerbside four bin system by 2030, and a container deposit scheme.

So what’s the proposed new kerbside bin system, and will it help alleviate Australia’s recycling crisis? Here’s what you need to know about the extra bin coming your way.




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


The problems with our recycling system

There are two big problems – particularly since the China ban.

One is about supply. The quality of materials we have for recycling is quite poor, partly from the design of the products, and partly how we collect and sort waste items.

The other is demand. There’s not enough demand for recycled materials in new products or infrastructure, and so the commodity value of the materials, even high quality, is low.

And even though many of us think we’re good at recycling, many households aren’t getting recycling exactly right because they put things that don’t belong in the recycling bin, such as soft plastics.

One reason is because of the confusion about what can be recycled, where and when. A standardised system of collection (no matter how many bins) will go a long way to improving this, and the most exciting aspect of the Victorian announcement is the strong leadership towards consistency across the state.




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


This means by 2030, no matter where Victorians live or visit, they’ll have a consistent kerbside bin system.

But to boost our recycling capacity, we need consistency across the country. New South Wales, South Australian and Western Australian governments are already supporting combined food and garden organics bins, and other states are likely to follow as the evidence of the benefits continues to accumulate.

What will change?

Details are still being ironed out, but essentially, the new system expands the current two or three bins most Victorian houses have to four bins.

While paper, cardboard and plastic or metal containers will still go in the yellow bin, glass containers will now have their own separate purple bin (or crate). A green bin, which some Victorians already have for garden vegetation, will expand to collect food scraps.

Victoria’s 4 bin plans.
Adapted by author from vic.gov.au/four-bin-waste-and-recycling-system

The purple bin will come first, with the gradual roll-out starting next year as some Victorian councils’ existing collection contracts come to a close. The service is expected to be fully in place by 2027 (some remote areas may be exempt).

And the expanded green bin service accepting food scraps for composting will be rolled out by 2030, unless councils choose to move earlier (some are already doing so).

How extra bins will make a difference

A 2015 report on managing household waste in Europe showed separating our waste increases the quality of material collected. Some countries even have up to six bins (or crates, or sacks).

That’s because it’s easier for people to sort out the different materials than for machines, particularly food and the complex packaging we have today.

A separate bin for food (plus garden organics) will help recover Victoria’s share of the 2.5 million tonnes of food and scraps Australian households chuck out each year.




Read more:
Melbourne wastes 200 kg of food per person a year: it’s time to get serious


And a separate bin for glass will help with glass breaking in the yellow bin or collection truck, contaminating surrounding paper and cardboard with tiny glass shards that renders them unrecyclable. It should also boost how much glass gets recycled, according to Australia’s largest glass reprocesser.

Most Melbourne households have only two bins: one for mixed recycling and the other for general waste.
Shutterstock

What do they need to get right?

To make sure the transition to the new system is smooth, councils and the Victorian government must consider:

  • the space needed for four bins

Not everyone has enough space (inside or outside). This may require creative council and household solutions like those already found overseas (stackable crates and segregated bins).

  • the collection schedule

Does the new purple bin mean we’ll see a another truck, or perhaps a special multi-compartment recycling truck? And once councils have food waste in a weekly green bin, will the red bin collection go fortnightly? This actually makes sense because 3560% of the red bin is food scraps, which will be gone.

  • correct disposal of food waste

Many councils that have already added food waste to the green bin report contamination issues as people get their head around the transition, such as putting food wrappers in with the food scraps.

  • correct sorting of recycling

Putting the wrong thing in the recycling bin is a problem across the country, and taking glass out of the yellow bin won’t solve this issue. While this is already being tackled in government campaigns and council trials, we’ll likely need more government effort at both a systems and household level.

Five things never to put in a recycling bin.
Sustainability Victoria, sustainability.vic.gov.au/recycling

Better collection won’t mean much without demand

Collection is only one piece of the puzzle. Government support is needed to make sure all this recycling actually ends up somewhere. Efforts to improve the “supply-side” aspects of recycling can go to waste if there’s no demand for the recycled materials.

Environmental economists have long pointed out that without government intervention, free markets in most countries will not pay enough or use enough recycled material when new, or “virgin”, materials are so cheap.




Read more:
Only half of packaging waste is recycled – here’s how to do better


What’s great for Victoria is the new four bin system is only one pillar of the state’s new recycling policy.

It also includes many demand-side initiatives, from market development grants and infrastructure funding, to developing a Circular Economy Business Innovation Centre. The policy also deems waste management to be an “essential service” and has left space for strong procurement commitments. Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged the importance of procurement when he announced an overhaul of the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines at the National Plastics Summit, to boost demand for recycled products.

Stepping up to the challenge

But to effectively combat Australia’s recycling crisis, more must be done. This includes reinvestment of landfill levies; standards for recycled materials, and at a federal level; clear strategies to improve product design ; and funding to support the waste and recycling industry to meet the export ban.




Read more:
A crisis too big to waste: China’s recycling ban calls for a long-term rethink in Australia


We also need regulation on the use of recycled material in products. For example, through mandated targets or fiscal policies like a tax on products made from virgin materials.

Since 2018 when China stopped taking most of our recycling, the level of industry, community and media interest has created a strong platform for policy change. It’s exciting to see Victoria responding to the challenge.The Conversation

Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University

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

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.




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


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.




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


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.




Read more:
The ‘recycling crisis’ may be here to stay


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.




Read more:
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.




Read more:
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.




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


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.




Read more:
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


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.




Read more:
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.