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


Ben Madden, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

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%.

Total amounts of packaging waste generated and recovered in Australia for the 2017-18 financial year.
APCO/UTS ISF

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.




Read more:
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 fate of Australia’s recyclables.
APCO/UTS ISF

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.




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


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.The Conversation

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

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

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The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled



File 20180503 153884 180g652.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
These are already 100% recyclable – the trick is to actually recycle them.
Srisakorn Wonglakorn/Shutterstock.com

Atiq Zaman, Curtin University

Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers last week agreed on an ambitious target that 100% of Australian packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. This is no doubt sensible, given the turmoil sparked by China’s crackdown on waste imports.

Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations.

For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.




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


In practice, these terms depend largely on the infrastructure available. Single-use plastic bags are a good example of a product that is technically recyclable but which is not accepted in most councils’ kerbside recycling collection. That’s because they are often contaminated with food waste and many councils lack the machinery to process them.

On its own, the new 100% target is not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that recyclable or reusable items will definitely be recycled or reused. To really make a difference, we also need policies and market incentives to ensure that these things end up where we want them to.

Driving recycling

We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.

In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.

Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ attempt at a National Waste Account in 2013, little nationwide data are available, thanks to a lack of a consistent reporting framework across different jurisdictions.

Plastic not fantastic

In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.

Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.

The fate of the world’s plastics.
Author provided

The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.

Retailers may have to embrace more innovative solutions to improve the quality of recycling waste, such as reverse vending machines, which accept items such as aluminium cans and plastic or glass bottles – as long as they are cleaned and sorted. However, without creating a local waste market or government incentives, we cannot expect retailers to buy their packaging back.

And this is before we even consider the complexities of composting and reuse. Compostable waste as a whole is already facing problems due to a high contamination rate, and lack of separate bin for recycling organic waste in many local councils. Reuse, meanwhile, needs us to tackle the eternal problem of people’s perceptions and behaviour about using old packaging again.

Will some kinds of packaging disappear?

Under the product stewardship initiative, which calls on producers and retailers to take care of the waste produced after consumption of goods, it seems more likely that some materials will simply be phased out of the product supply chain altogether.

The impending plastic bag bans in several states and leading supermarkets offers a chance to replace them not with heavier, more durable plastic, but with biodegradable, renewable and eco-friendly natural materials such as hemp.

In turn, this would boost hemp production (alongside the legalisation of hemp-based medicine and food products in Australia). This could lead to the opportunity for manufacturing industry to produce environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics. Hemp-based biodegradable plastic would significantly safeguard the environment, even if we failed to achieve a 100% recycling of biodegradable plastic packaging. Similarly, glass or aluminium might be used instead of plastic, and are more easily recycled.

Even more innovatively, we might even see the arrival of edible packaging derived from the milk protein casein, formed into film rather like plastic cling wrap, which can be used to package foods such as butter or cheese.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


We need a better target

We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.

For this to work, we would need three things:

  1. legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
  2. an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
  3. the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.

The ConversationFinally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.

Atiq Zaman, Lecturer, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.