As the dramatic shutdown of major recycling company SKM this week has illustrated, recycling is not free.
Householders in Australia pay council rates for a recycling and garbage service. This fee is largely based on the costs of collecting, sorting and processing, and – importantly – what returns are likely from selling the end product.
However, since 2017 the price on the open market for mixed plastics has plummeted from about A$325 per tonne to A$100 per tonne. Mixed glass actually dropped to a negative value, which meant that generators were potentially paying for it to be taken away.
As consumers, we should be vocal about seemingly contradictory practices by businesses. For example, supermarkets congratulate themselves on reducing plastic bags, but then use small plastic toys as marketing tools – not even making them out of recycled plastic. These toys are destined for disposal, potentially contaminating recycling streams, and not all consumers are happy.
Throw out recycling properly
It’s tempting, if you don’t know whether something is recyclable, to simply put it in the yellow bin and assume someone on the other end will “sort it out”. But in reality, incorrectly recycled material can contaminate entire loads of otherwise valuable and useful recyclables, diverting it to landfill.
Councils blame the recyclers for this, who blame the councils. Everyone blames state governments, and they in turn blame the recyclers.
Fundamentally though, we as the generators of waste must assume a high degree of responsibility. We are the ones putting contaminants into the recycling system that everyone else in the management structure must deal with.
It’s our job to familiarise ourselves with what can and cannot be recycled – although, to be fair, this can vary widely from council to council, and should be made easier to check.
If we can clean up the recycling streams, markets should increase and prices for these commodities will similarly rise. This encourages those in the sector to improve their plant technology, and for others to enter in what would then be a more competitive market.
Develop the industry
Clean recycling still requires an established market to be profitable. Governments, as the single largest purchasers in Australia, can play an important role here.
The Victorian government has already committed to helping government agencies increase recycled content in their purchasing requirements. Other governments are doing likewise and this is a very positive step.
At a minimum, contracts and tenders should specify a certain level of recycled materials used in products sold to the government, or prefer those suppliers who do have recycled content.
One innovative approach where governments can use their purchasing power is with the use of plastic and glass recyclables in roads. Trials have been extremely positive.
In fact, the Australian Council of Recycling has suggested that using recycled material in construction for the Snowy 2.0 scheme would consume all the recyclables generated in Australia.
We need to chew and walk gum
The most important message is, just as there’s no single person or sector to blame for Australia’s dismal recycling situation, there’s no single solution. We all need to take more care with what we put in the bin. Governments around Australia should incentivise local manufacturers to use domestic recycling.
Recycling companies should certainly improve their technology so they can produce higher-quality material, which can be sold at a profit.
And, as the current SKM debacle illustrates, governments need a plan B when the market breaks down.
Even with all of this, a sustainable domestic recycling industry is some way off. We urgently need to start doing the things we already know will work, rather than playing endless rounds of a pointless blame game.
This article is part of our occasional long read series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.
“Design” has been one of the big words of the twentieth century. To say that an object has been designed implies a level of specialness. “Designer items” are invested with a particular kind of expertise that is likely to make them pleasing to use, stylish, or – less common in late-capitalist society – well made.
Due to this positive association, design has become an “elevator word”, to borrow a phrase used by philosopher of science Ian Hacking. Like the words “facts”, “truth”, “knowledge”, “reality”, “genuine” and “robust”, the word design is used to raise the level of discourse.
“Repair” hasn’t had such a glossy recent history. We don’t have universities or TAFEs offering degrees in repair, churning out increasingly large numbers of repairers. Repair exists in the shadow of design, in unfashionable, unofficial pockets. And, until recently, repair mostly passed unremarked.
British literary scholar Steven Connor points to the ambiguous status of repair in his analysis of “fixing”. Connor discusses fixing and fixers in the context of related figures, such as the tinker, bodger and mender, all of which share outsider status.
One might be forgiven for thinking “design” and “repair” were opposing forces. The former word has become so bound up with notions of newness, improvement, performance and innovation that it emphatically signals its difference from the seamful, restorative connotations of repair.
If repair is hessian and twine, design is sleek uniformity. Repair is about upkeep. Design is about updating. Repair is ongoing and cyclical. Design is about creative “genius” and finish. To design is, supposedly, to conceive and complete, to repair is to make do.
But perhaps design and repair are not, or ought not to be, as divergent as such a setting of the scene suggests. Thinking metaphorically of repair as design, and design as repair, can offer new and useful perspectives on both of these important spheres of cultural activity.
Repair and design have a lot in common
As a surface sheen that soothes us, design distracts us from any uncomfortable reminders of the disastrous excesses of global capitalist consumption and waste. The acquisition of new “designs” becomes addictive, a quick hit of a fresh design assures us that life is progressing.
As each new object is designed into existence and used over time, it is accompanied by an inevitable need for repair that evolves in parallel. Repair, where possible, cleans up the mess left by design.
Design and repair are different though related approaches to the common problem of entropy. Repair might seem only to be about returning an object to its previous state, whether for functional or decorative purposes. But maintaining that state is a hard fought affair, no less invested by collective or personal value.
The act of repair is also a determinate of worth. Whether at an individual or collective scale, choosing to repair this, and discard or neglect that, shares much in common with the process of selection, which informs the design of objects, images, garments or spaces.
Apple is revered for its design
Apple’s outgoing Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive’s influence at Apple is among the most popularised examples of “successful design”, to which other designers and design students have long aspired. With Ive’s departure from Apple this year, we have an opportunity to take a long view of his legacy.
Since the distinctive bubble iMac in 1998, Ive shifted computing away from the beige, boxy uniformity of the IBM PC era, aligning computing with “high design” and investing it with deep popular appeal.
Even prior to Ive’s influence – take for example the 1977 Apple II – Apple’s industrial design has played a fundamental role in transforming computers from machines for tinkerers, into desirable objects of self-actualisation, blending leisure and labour with incomparable ease.
The iPhone is one among a suite of Apple products that have changed cultural expectations around consumer electronics, and other smart phone manufacturers have followed suit.
The ubiquity of iPhones makes it increasingly difficult to appreciate their strangeness. Not only do they appear sealed beyond consumer access, they almost induce a forgetting of seals altogether. The glistening surface expresses an idea of inviolability which is completely at odds with the high likelihood of wear and tear.
The iPhone is perhaps the ultimate example of a “black box”, an object that exhibits a pronounced distinction between its interior mechanics, which determine its functionality, and its exterior appearance. It gives nothing away, merely reflecting back at us through its “black mirror”, to borrow the title of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian television series.
The design of the iPhone – among other similar devices – forecloses against repair, both through its physical form, and also through the obsolescence built into its software and systems design, which defensively pits individuals against the power of a giant multinational company.
‘Right to repair’ is gaining ground
Apple deliberately discourages its customers using independent repair services. It has a track record of punishing people who have opted for independent repairs, rather than going through Apple (at much greater expense). This is an example of the company’s attempt to keep its customers in an ongoing cycle of constant consumption.
This has put Apple – along with the agricultural equipment company John Deere – in the crosshairs of the growing Right to Repair movement in the United States. Right to Repair is centred on a drive to reform legislation in 20 US states, targeting manufacturers’ “unfair and deceptive policies that make it difficult, expensive, or impossible for you to repair the things you own”.
The movement could perhaps be criticised for focusing too much on libertarian individualism. Other groups advocate more community-focused repair strategies, such as the global proliferation of Repair Cafes, and Sweden’s groundbreaking secondhand mall, ReTuna Recycling Galleria.
This legacy of digital technology’s “anti-repairability” has been accepted as inevitable for some time, but the tide is turning. For example, the Victorian government has banned e-waste from landfill from July 1.
Designing for the future
Considering the increasing importance of responsible production and consumption, it is easily imaginable that, in a not too distant future, designers and design historians might point to the iPhone as naive, regressive and destructive. An example of design with thoroughly dated priorities, like the buildings in the Gothic revival style that provoked the ire of modernist architects.
Obscuring the wastage of valuable resources through sleek design could be decried as an outrageous excess, rather than celebrated for its “simiplicity”. With the benefit of hindsight, we might finally see that the iPhone was the opposite of minimalism.
Perhaps the revered objects of this imagined future will be launched by an entrepreneur who spruiks features and services associated with repair, rather than pacing the stage, championing an object because of its slimness, sleekness and speed. Hackability, ease of access, modularity, spare parts and durability might be touted as a product’s best features.
Alternatively, if the use of an object is decoupled from individual ownership, the responsibility for repair and waste might fall back on the producer. Perhaps “repair bins” will become a taken for granted feature of the urban landscape like curbside recycling bins are today.
To compel the pragmatists among us, such wishful thinking needs to remain mindful of the power multinationals have demonstrated in thwarting dreams of open access. Repair-oriented practices still face vast challenges when it is seemingly so convenient to waste. But to use one of the words of the day, aspirations need to be articulated if we, collectively, want to have the chance of living the dream.
The Australian construction industry has grown significantly in the past two decades. Population growth has led to the need for extensive property development, better public transport and improved infrastructure. This means there has been a substantial increase in waste produced by construction and demolition.
In 2017, the industry generated 20.4 million tons (or megatonnes, MT) of waste from construction and demolition, such as for road and rail maintenance and land excavation. Typically, the waste from these activities include bricks, concrete, metal, timber, plasterboard, asphalt, rock and soil.
Between 2016 and 2017, more than 6.7MT of this waste went into landfills across Australia. The rest is either recycled, illegally dumped, reused, reprocessed or stockpiled.
But with high social, economic and environmental costs, sending waste to landfill is the worst strategy to manage this waste.
What’s more, China introduced its “National Sword Policy” and restricted waste imports, banning certain foreign waste materials and setting stricter limits on contamination. So Australia’s need for solutions to landfill waste has become urgent.
Their new policy has mixed meanings for Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry. While it has closed China’s market to some of our waste, it encourages the development of an Australian domestic market for salvaged and recycled waste.
But there are several issues standing in the way of effective management of Australia’s construction and demolition waste.
In Australia, the main strategy to reduce the waste sent to landfill is the use of levies. But the effectiveness of levies has been questioned in recent years by experts who argue for smarter strategies to manage waste from construction and demolition. They say that imposing a landfill levy has not achieved the intended goals, such as a reduction in waste disposal or an increase in waste recovery activities.
To slow down the filling of landfills, Germany introduced “the German Packaging Ordinance”. This law made manufacturers responsible for their own packaging waste. They either had to take back their packaging from consumers and distributors or pay the national packaging waste management organisation to collect it.
Australia has no specific EPR-driven legal instrument for the construction and demolition waste stream, nor any nationally adopted EPR regulations.
These schemes have provided an impetus for industry engagement in national integrated management of some types of waste, such as e-waste, oil, batteries and fluorescent lights. Voluntary industry programs also cover materials such as PVC, gypsum, waffle pod and carpet.
For instance, since 2002, the Vinyl Council of Australia has voluntarily agreed to apply EPR principles. Armstrong Australia, the world’s largest manufacturer of resilient PVC flooring products, collects the offcuts and end-of-life flooring materials for recycling and processing into a new product. These materials would otherwise have been sent to landfill.
In another example, CSR Gyprock uses a take-back scheme to collect offcuts and demolition materials. After installation, the fixing contractor arranges collection with CSR Gyprock’s recycling contractor who charges the builder a reasonable fee.
But extending producer responsibility in a sustainable way comes with a few challenges.
Everyone in the supply chain should be included: those who produce and supply materials, those involved in construction and demolition, and those who recover, recycle and dispose of waste.
The goal of our work is to connect organisations and industries across the country so waste can be traded instead of sent to landfill.
But the lack of an efficient supply chain system can discourage stakeholders from taking part in such schemes. An inefficient supply chain increases the costs associated with labour and admin staff at construction sites, transport, storage, separation of waste and insurance premiums.
All of these are not only seen as a financial burden but also add complexities to an already complicated system.
Australia needs a system with a balanced involvement of producers, consumers and delivery services to extend producer responsibility.
How can research and development help?
In our research, we’re seeking to develop a national economic approach to deal with the barriers preventing the effective management of construction and demolition waste in Australia, such as implementing an extended producer responsibility.
And a project aimed to find ways to integrate supply chain systems in the construction and demolition waste and resource recovery industry is supporting our efforts.
The goal is to ensure well-established connections between all parts in the construction supply chain. A more seamless system will boost markets for these materials, making waste recovery more economically viable. And that in turn will benefit society, economy and the environment.
Indonesia has returned a container load of recyclables back to Australia, because the material did not meet stringent import requirements.
It is the latest Southeast Asian country to refuse Australia’s recycling waste. In January 2018, China stopped buying our recyclables until contamination was reduced significantly.
To achieve this, Australia needed to reduce contamination in commercial and household recycling, and improve our sorting facilities so they can identify and remove the types of materials causing concern.
This should have been a wake-up call that we need to improve our recycling industry and take urgent steps to reduce our reliance on overseas destinations for our recyclables. But did we? Clearly, the answer is no.
Dealing with difficult waste
In July the Philippines turned away 69 containers (about 1,500 tonnes), of materials incorrectly labelled as plastic and containing unacceptable contaminants. Malaysia has also threatened to send recyclables back to the originating country if the loads contain contaminants.
Looking at photos of the material rejected by Indonesia, it is clearly a typical load of baled recyclables that could have come from any sorting facility in Australia. It contains recyclables, but also contamination like used nappies, clothing, food scraps, paper and cardboard in the plastic recycling, metals and plastic in the paper recycling and some containers that once had motor oil or detergents in them.
While I personally suspect it’s slightly over the top to call this “hazardous” material, as some news reports have – the same loads are shipped to some facilities in Australia – it is a moot point. Indonesia can set whatever rules they deem necessary to protect the health of their communities and environment.
This continues after strong warnings that unless we provide clean recyclables, we will not have access to these overseas markets.
So what is contamination?
Recycling is basically divided into “streams”. Mostly these streams contain one or two types of materials. For example, we have a cardboard stream, plastic stream or in some instances commingled stream which contains plastic, aluminium, steel and glass containers.
“Contamination” refers to materials that are not wanted in that stream because they interfere with the proper treatment of a given load. Plastic in a load of cardboard and paper is contamination; so are clothes in a plastic load. It does not necessarily need to be toxic chemicals or other things that come to mind when we think of “contamination”.
However, containers used for detergents, disinfectants, and the broad range of household chemicals do contain residues. While some of these fluids and powders do get removed (often while materials are being baled), some residues remain and this can also cause issues for those wishing to use the recyclables as their raw materials.
So it is no wonder Australian businesses are reluctant to use what we currently sort and send out as their raw materials. If the recyclables materials contain contaminants at a high level, then the business who could have used them would have to expend resources to clean up the loads. Apart from that cost, they then have to dispose of the unwanted materials to landfill.
Additionally, due to some uncertainty in the quality of the recyclables, manufacturers are concerned whether their products will be of the required standard and if not, will that affect the customer base. Remember, when recycled paper was first on the market there was some concern about inferior “whitness” and this affected sales. (Ironically, now most business use recycled paper this situation is somewhat reversed.)
How can we fix it?
Ultimately, the issue is not how we can get other countries to accept our waste. Australia needs to improve our capacity and willingness to use recycled materials ourselves.
We have seen progress recently with Australian companies using recycled materials in new and innovative ways. Plastics used in road construction or in building materials is just one example.
But unless our recycling is better sorted, it won’t be used by domestic companies. Even products made with recycled material need to be clean, safe and reliable.
So what can we do about it? Of course, the obvious first step is to invest more into recycling facilities so they can sort more efficiently. However, we all need to take responsibility for what we put into the recycling at home or work. Many contaminants can easily be avoided with a little more care, so familiarise yourself with what can be recycled by your home council.
Finally, recycling is not a panacea. We need to seriously reduce the amount of waste we create, as individuals and a society. Without this, the problem will only continue to grow.
This year, the small Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu announced a plan to ban disposable nappies, as well as other throwaway items such as plastic bags. While some commentators praised the move, others worried about what the alternatives might be, and how this might affect household workloads, particularly for women.
While Vanuatu is the first nation to take such a bold step, it is not the first nation to recognise the environmental problems disposable nappies pose. Although most landfill waste in Australia and New Zealand consists of building waste, disposable nappies make up a significant percentage of household waste entering landfill – Australia uses an estimated 3.75 million of them every day.
Many urban parents find that a week’s worth of nappies barely fits into their kerbside bin, especially for families with two children in nappies. I’ve certainly met these parents stalking the streets on the evening before bin day, searching for half-empty bins to dump their surplus dirty nappies.
But this is not the only problem: nappies are a significant source of contamination in the waste stream. Infant faeces are a source of live vaccine, bacteria such as E. coli, and many other hazardous contaminants. The correct procedure is to scrape faeces into the toilet before disposing of the nappy. But let’s be honest – the whole attractiveness of disposable nappies is not having to do this, especially while out and about.
Lessons from a bygone age
So what is the alternative? Obviously, before disposable nappies, parents had to use cloth nappies. In Australia, the standard was the fluffy terry cloth folded into a triangle; in New Zealand, the flat flannelette folded differently for boys and girls.
Traditional cloth nappies were much less absorbent, and therefore had to be changed about 15 times per day, before being washed, dried, and folded for next time. It’s no coincidence that this practice dates to an era when households typically featured a stay-at-home mother.
In recent years, modern cloth nappies have emerged, with more absorbent designs that require less frequent changing. They use modern materials such as microfibre, microfleece, polyurethane laminate, and fabrics derived from bamboo. These nappies may be snug in design, pleasing to the eye, and less prone to leaks. They also require less water for laundry, because they can be put straight into a washing machine rather than being soaked as traditional nappies were.
Yet, as Ni-Vanuatu commentators have already pointed out, these designs are not necessarily suitable for tropical climates or warmer weather due to the use of non-breathable fabrics. These fabrics might also encourage nappy rash and other related problems for babies’ delicate skin.
Lessening the load
The search for alternatives does not need to be limited to Oceania, however. My research with families with young infants in northwestern China examined a practice known as ba niao, or “holding out to urinate”. This method of infant hygiene involves very limited use of nappies, meaning laundry can feasibly be done by hand.
Briefly, it involves learning the signals and timing of a baby’s patterns of poop and pee, then holding them out over a basin, toilet or potty for them to release, nappy-free. Caregivers look for signs such as squirming, pushing, fussing, stillness, and other forms of more direct communication that precede an “elimination”. As babies get older and begin to walk, they can be taught to urinate in Chinese-style squat toilets or other appropriate places, with the help of pants with a hole cut out of the crotch.
In colder parts of China, this is done by using several layers of pants, each with a hole, so babies do not have to be undressed. Caregivers tuck nappy-cloths made from old sheets or other soft rags up into the waistband of the pants, to be quickly and easily removed when a baby seems ready to “go”. If the caregiver misses the signal, the small, light cloth can be easily handwashed and dried on a balcony or radiator. If the caregiver is not near a toilet, the baby may even be held out over the ground or tiles, and urine cleaned up with a mop.
For faeces, babies are encouraged into a regular routine through a large morning feed of milk, and patient “holding out” until the morning elimination is done. If the baby’s bowel movements are less predictable, perhaps due to illness, some families use disposable nappy pads, tucked in the same way as the traditional nappies, but more as a backup for missing a signal rather than relying on it.
Households without indoor toilets also use this method, including families who live in their shop and rely on public showers and toilets for hygiene.
This method is used by rich and poor families alike. Research by disposable nappy producers Proctor & Gamble estimated that Chinese consumers of disposable nappies use only one per day – or more accurately, per night. Even those who can afford disposable nappies tend to eschew them in favour of ba niao during daylight hours. Besides a lot less laundry, the reported benefits include less nappy rash, earlier toilet independence, and less crying and fussing.
Is this a realistic practice for countries seeking to quit disposable nappies? It may seem far from westernised norms, but my research has also analysed the content of Australian and New Zealand-based web forums and Facebook groups, with collectively around 2,000 members. These caregivers, mostly mums, are trying to work out the best way to introduce a similar practice to everyday life here, too.
They are inspired by the fact that this is possible in other parts of the world, and may indeed be a key to reducing the laundry load. And if they’re not quite ready to quit disposable nappies altogether, they might at least give up the weekly raid on the neighbours’ rubbish bins.