Why municipal waste-to-energy incineration is not the answer to NZ’s plastic waste crisis



Since the Chinese plastic recycling market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste goes to countries in South-East Asia.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

New Zealand is ranked the third-most-wasteful country in the OECD. New Zealanders produce five times the global daily average of waste per person – and they are getting more wasteful, producing 35% more than a decade ago.

These statistics are likely to get worse following China’s 2018 ban on imports of certain recyclable products. China was the world’s top importer of recyclable plastics, but implemented the ban because it could no longer safely manage its domestic and imported waste. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, China was named the top source of marine plastic pollution in the world.

Since the Chinese market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste now goes to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — all countries with weak regulations and high rankings as global sources of marine plastic pollution.

Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has been raised as a solution. While turning plastic waste into energy may sound good, it creates more pollution and delays a necessary transition to a circular economy.




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Dirty plastics

Shipments of plastic recycling often arrive in developing countries unsorted and contaminated. Materials that cannot be easily recycled are commonly burned, releasing dioxins into air, soil and water. In response, South-East Asian countries have started returning dirty plastics to developed countries.

Several New Zealand councils have stopped collecting certain plastics for recycling offshore. They are sending them to landfill instead. Available data suggest that even before the China ban plastics made up roughly 15% of the waste in municipal landfills – about 250,000 tonnes a year. Much of this is imported plastic packaging.

Many New Zealanders are very or extremely worried about the impact of plastic waste. We cannot continue ignoring our role in the global plastic pollution crisis while dumping plastic in homegrown landfills or in developing countries.




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In the scramble to find alternatives, waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has become a hot topic, particularly as foreign investors look to establish WtE incinerators on the West Coast and [other centres]in New Zealand. Some local government representatives have endorsed WtE proposals, or raised WtE as an election issue.

Less plastic good for climate

Like landfills, WtE incinerators symbolise the linear “take-make-waste” economy, which destroys valuable resources and perpetuates waste generation.

Globally, countries are moving to circular approaches instead, which follow the “zero waste hierarchy”. This prioritises waste prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling and composting and considers WtE unacceptable.

Some New Zealanders say Nordic countries have proven that incineration is the environmental silver bullet to our waste woes. But a recent study found these countries will not meet EU circular economy goals unless they replace WtE incineration with policies that reduce waste generation. Such policies include packaging taxes, recycling and recovery rate targets, landfill bans on biodegradable waste, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility.

Rejecting linear approaches is also good for the climate. Actions at the top of the waste hierarchy stop more greenhouse gases than those at the bottom.

In contrast, WtE incinerators can produce 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of municipal solid waste burnt. New Zealand’s zero carbon act means we have a responsibility to ensure we do not increase our greenhouse gas emissions by investing in WtE incineration.

Incinerators also cannot magic away toxins in plastic waste. Even the most high-tech WtE incinerators [[release dioxins and other pollutants into the air]. Meanwhile, toxin-laden fly ash and slag are dumped in landfills to eventually leach into the environment and contaminate food systems.

Shifting responsibility for plastic waste

To address plastic pollution, it is easy to see how prevention and reduction work better than “getting rid of” plastic once produced. Many WtE proponents argue that incineration technology can be a temporary solution for the plastic waste we have already created.

But incinerators are not short-term fixes. They are expensive to build and maintain. Large-scale incinerators demand about 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a year, encouraging increasing production of waste. Investors guarantee returns on their investment by locking councils into decades-long contracts.

The only real solution to our plastics problem is through regulation that moves New Zealand towards a circular economy. We can start by making the linear economy expensive by increasing landfill levies above the current $NZ10/tonne and expanding it to all landfills. We must also invest in better waste collection, sorting and recycling systems, including a national network of resource recovery centres.

Instead of burning or burying plastic that cannot be reused, recycled or composted, we can prevent or reduce it through targeted phase-outs. The government is proposing to regulate single-use plastic packaging, beverage packaging, electronic waste and farm plastics through mandatory product stewardship schemes. This would make manufacturers responsible for the waste they produce and provide incentives for less wasteful and toxic product design and delivery systems (e.g. refill stations).

All of these circular solutions will provide far more jobs than WtE incineration.

Without a swift, brave shift to a circular economy, New Zealand will remain one of the world’s most wasteful nations. Circular economies are developing globally and WtE incineration will only set us back by 30 years.


Hannah Blumhardt, the coordinator of the NZ Product Stewardship Council, has contributed to this article.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey 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.




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Other actions agreed upon include:

  • an 80% recovery rate of material across all waste streams,
  • significant increases to government procurement of recycled materials, and
  • halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfill.

So, not all doom and gloom.

But it was reasonable to expect this meeting to deliver more concrete strategies. We have known since 2013 China would stop accepting low-quality rubbish imports; the time has well and truly come for real action.

Inquiry upon inquiry upon…

In 2018 the commonwealth, state and local governments came together to agree to a National Waste Policy.

Providing 14 strategies, it was expected specific detail on actual targets and implementation schedules would follow.

Moving forward, at a December 2018 meeting of environment ministers another set of actions was agreed upon, again with an understanding that detail on implementation and targets would be developed.




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Following another COAG meeting in August 2019 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the export of recyclables would be banned as “soon as possible”. In Tuvalu for the Pacific Islands Forum later that month, Morrison made a commitment to “attack waste in the South Pacific”.

And in October this year the commonwealth government announced an inquiry into Australia’s waste management and recycling industries.

The states and councils are acting

So are we really any closer to solving the waste and recycling problem?

There has been some commendable efforts by state and local governments. Victoria currently has a number of inquiries, reviews and reports underway into improving recycling and waste management.




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South Australia had a task force to advise the government on legislation to phase out single-use plastics. Queensland has similarly released a plastic pollution reduction plan.

In addition, councils are looking at a variety of schemes to better manage waste. Yarra Council is providing an extra bin for glass, for example, and Ballarat has banned it from the household recycling stream.

While each plan has been well thought out by the councils, the main issue is the lack of consistency. When someone is visiting or moves across council lines, they may inadvertently contaminate recycling streams by simply doing what they would when at their own home.

Better options do exist

A recent draft report from Infrastructure Victoria provided a range of options for improving waste and recycling management. These options were provided to (among other reasons) promote discussion as to what could be the preferred options.

This draft report covered the many areas that could be improved – such as the processing sector, use of recycled materials, waste to energy, organics management and so on. Yet the one proposal that received media attention was the suggestion that households have six bins for sorting waste and recyclables.




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After all these inquiries, meetings and recommended actions by the various levels of government, where are we at? Recyclables are still going to landfill, many in the community are still confused as to how to correctly sort waste and recyclables, and the issue of contamination has not been resolved.

It was hoped this November meeting would finally result in specific actions and detailed solutions.

Where are the commitments to waste avoidance and reduction initiatives? What about community education to reduce contamination? Or a way to ensure consistency within and across the states and territories?

Education is vital for reducing the inappropriate mixing of recycled materials. Yet very little has been done, excluding some sterling efforts by local councils. This is an easy and relatively cheap action. It is very difficult to understand why we don’t, for example, see national TV ads indicating correct recycling.

There is also compelling evidence container deposit schemes are effective and can significantly reduce ocean plastic.

Finally, as the industry peak body has said, the ultimate issue is the lack of sophisticated reprocessing and manufacturing facilities in Australia to handle paper and plastic recyclables domestically.




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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.

80% of household water goes to waste – we need to get it back


Roberta Ryan, University of Technology Sydney

As regional Australian towns face the prospect of running out of water, it’s time to ask why Australia does not make better use of recycled wastewater.

The technology to reliably and safely make clean, drinkable water from all sources, including sewage, has existed for at least a decade. Further, government policy has for a long time allowed for recycled water to ensure supply.




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The greatest barrier to the widespread use of recycled wastewater is community acceptance. Research from around the world found the best way to overcome reluctance is to embrace education and rigorously ensure the highest quality water treatment.

In 2006 Toowoomba voted against introducing recycled water, despite extensive drought gripping the area.
Allan Henderson/Flickr, CC BY

Why not use stormwater?

Many people are happy to use recycled stormwater, while being reluctant to cook, drink or wash with recycled household wastewater. But there are technical, cost and supply issues with relying on stormwater to meet our country’s water needs. Stormwater has to be cleaned before it is used, the supply can be irregular as it is reliant upon rain, and it has to be stored somewhere for use.

On the other hand, household wastewater (which is what goes into the sewerage system from sinks, toilets, washing machines and so on) is a more consistent supply, with 80% or more of household water leaving as wastewater.

Furthermore, wastewater goes to treatment plants already, so there is a system of pipes to transport it and places which already treat it, including advanced treatment plants that can treat the water to be clean enough for a range of purposes. There are strong economic, environmental and practical arguments for investing more effort in reusing wastewater to meet our water supply needs.

This water can be used for households, industry, business and agriculture, greening public spaces, fighting fires, and topping up rivers or groundwater.

The water cycle

Technically, all water is recyled; indeed we are drinking the same water as the dinosaurs. Put very simply, water evaporates, forms clouds and falls as rain, and is either absorbed into the earth and captured underground or filtered through rock and goes back again into oceans and rivers.

When we capture and reuse water, we are not making more water, but speeding up the water cycle so we can reuse it more quickly.

Not pictured: the many, many animals and people every drop of water has passed through over millennia.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

We do already reuse wastewater in Australia, with many parts of regional Australia cleaning wastewater and releasing it into rivers. That water is then extracted for use by places downstream.

Despite this, there have been significant community objections to building new infrastructure to reuse wastewater for household use. In 2006, at the height of the Millennium drought, Toowoomba rejected the idea entirely.

However, since then a scheme has been successfully established in Perth. We must examine these issues again in light of the current drought, which sees a number of Australian regional centres facing the prospect of running out of water.




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Lessons from overseas

Singapore has had enormous success in reusing wastewater for all kinds of purposes.
EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG

Despite initial reluctance, many places around the world have successfully introduced extensive wastewater recycling. Places such as Singapore, Essex, California, New Mexico, and Virginia widely use it.

Recent research from the Water Services Association of Australia, working with other research bodies, found several key lessons.

Firstly, the language we use is important. Phrases like “toilet to tap” are unhelpful as they don’t emphasise the extensive treatment processes involved.




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The social media and news outlets can play an significant role here. In Orange County, California, wastewater was introduced through a slow process of building acceptance. Influential individuals were enlisted to explain and advocate for its uses.

Secondly, communities need time and knowledge, particularly about safety and risks. Regulators play an important role in reassuring communities. In San Diego, a demonstration plant gave many people the opportunity to see the treatment process, drink the water and participate in education.

We need to go beyond information to deep consultation and education, understanding where people are starting from and acknowledging that people
from different cultures and backgrounds may have different attitudes.

El Paso successfully introduced wastewater through strong engagement with the media and significant investment in community education, including explaining the water cycle.

Finally, quality of the water needs to be great and it needs to come from a trustworthy source. The more it happens, and people know that, the more likely they are to feel reassured.




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It’s clear the public expect governments to plan and act to secure our future water supply. But we can’t just impose possibly distasteful solutions – instead, the whole community needs to be part of the conversation.The Conversation

Roberta Ryan, Professor, UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance and UTS Centre for Local Government, University of Technology Sydney

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

Stop shaming and start empowering: advertisers must rethink their plastic waste message



A woman sorts plastic bottles at a workshop in Hanoi. The world is being overwhelmed by plastic waste, and companies should do more to address it.
EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

Sergio Brodsky, RMIT University

Discussion of the environment is embedded in our culture as public awareness over issues such as climate change and plastic pollution has grown. Advertisers are not shy about tapping into this concern for their own benefit.

A Twitter analysis last year revealed that in the UK at least, the environment was a current and growing issue. Between January 2015 and March 2018, discussion on Twitter about single-use plastic, for example, increased by an incredible 5,543%.

Advertisers are already highly skilled at the power of narrative: reducing complexity and helping us make sense of their message. This power is amplified when the narrative taps into culture. A brand message, if successful, then becomes part of people’s conversations rather than interrupting them with ads they don’t care about.




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Advertisers who tell a good story can persuade the public of all sorts of things. Some messages are positive and constructive. But a few are disingenuous and misleading.

The latter is especially true in the case of recycling, where advertisers often imply that consumers, not corporations, are responsible for the huge amounts of plastic waste a product creates.

A CocaCola recycling campaign that ran in the 2019 European summer.
Supplied by author

Plastic pollution is a big deal

Australia’s National Waste Report last year found 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2016-17 – or 103kg for each person. Most of it was only used once, and just 12% was recycled.

Coca-Cola says by the end of 2019, 70% of its plastic bottles in Australia will be made entirely from recycled plastic. The company in August released a video in Australia thanking people for recycling.




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It follows a European campaign launched by the company in June with the tagline “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle”.

Absolut Vodka this year launched a new limited edition bottle made of 41% recycled glass – like all of its bottles – accompanied by a “Guide to a Circular Living Together”. The company told customers: “Now’s your time to shine on stage – rocking the recycling lifestyle as a true #RecyclingHero!”

Coca-Cola Australia | Thanks For Recycling Campaign, 2019.

On the face of it, such campaigns might seem virtuous, especially following China’s 2018 policy limiting the import of low-quality mixed recyclables. But in fact they continue a long history of framing consumers as the main waste culprits.

The practice began in the US in the 1950s when Keep America Beautiful was formed. The non-profit consortium included Coca-Cola and tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris, among others. Its campaigns, such as the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad, tapped into a shared cultural guilt for polluting the environment and, in this case, mistreating native people.

Such tactics have been mirrored by Keep Australia Beautiful campaigns.

But guilt is not a good predictor of people’s behaviour. A 2001 study found individuals must feel ethically validated, not guilty, to behave in an environmentally friendly way.

Consumers are not the villains

Manufacturers of consumer products obviously play a major role in the growing plastic problem. This is reflected in the Australian Packaging Covenant, an agreement between government and industry.

It says responsibility for packaging should be shared by companies throughout the supply chain. Consumers, waste service providers, recyclers and governments also have roles to play.




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Researchers have noted that a permissive legal framework has allowed plastic pollution to rise despite the obvious harm it causes to communities and marine life.

As Recycled Plastics Australia general manager Stephen Scherer told the ABC this year:

…the federal government has been absent from the conversation about waste, while Australians are operating in a culture where ‘we don’t do what we’re not forced to do’.

Plastic waste is on the radar of Australian governments. State and federal environment ministers last year set a target that all packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier.

But critics say rather than set targets, the federal government must mandate the use of recycled plastic in packaging to ensure the waste problem is addressed.

Fish swimming along a coral reef near a water bottle label and a plastic bag off the coast of the Red Sea resort town of Naama Bay, Egypt.
Mike Nelson/EPA

Recycling campaigns done right

Companies such as Coca-Cola are embracing the concept of sustainability to some extent. But better still, other brands have sought to fix recycling systems themselves.

In February Unilever “paid” people in Buenos Aires, Argentina for their household recyclables with discount coupons redeemable against its products at selected retailers.

In the UK, Burger King last month announced it was scrapping plastic toys from kids’ meals and invited the public to bring in old plastic toys from any restaurant meal. The plastic will be remade into “interactive play opportunities” for families at their restaurants.

In Australia, superannuation fund Australian Ethical ran its latest campaign on 100% recyclable billboard skins.

Consumers do have a role to play in waste reduction, including by recycling or demanding that companies find alternatives to single-use plastics. But if companies want to respond meaningfully to the plastic crisis, they must accept ultimate responsibility for their packaging and work towards zero-waste.The Conversation

Sergio Brodsky, Sessional Lecturer, Marketing, RMIT University

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

Here is a global solution to the plastic waste crisis – and A$443 million to get it started



Informal settlments line a plastic-choked river in Manila, Philippines.
newsinfo.inquirer.net

Andrew Forrest, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

Since the mass production of plastic began, almost six billion tonnes of it – approximately 91% – has remained in our air, land and water. Plastic production and use is embedded in the global economy, and in our natural environment. This culture of waste is clearly perilous and unsustainable.

Our paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can stop the plastic tide.

It is backed by a commitment by the Minderoo Foundation, chaired by the lead author, of up to US$300 million (A$443 million) to help establish the scheme and ensure its integrity.

The paper argues that the intervention – a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic – would drive a system-wide transition to recycled plastic. Our modelling shows that this would lead to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new plastic – creating huge benefits for marine life and human health.

We must turn off the tap

Plastic takes so long to break down that every piece produced since its inception in 1856 still exists today, except the small share we’ve burned into poisonous gases.

Many strategies to address the plastic problem have been proposed to date, and efforts have been commendable. But we are bailing out a bathtub with a thimble – while the tap is running.

We have identified a simple solution: a voluntary industry contribution for new fossil fuel-based plastic production.

We believe this technical and financial initiative would level the playing field by making recycled plastic more competitively priced, establishing the right market conditions for a circular plastics economy.

We know from our discussions with industry that this would release technology, in particular chemical or ‘polymer-to-polymer’ recycling, that is proven today but cannot yet compete economically with new fossil fuel-derived plastic. Increased demand from recyclers would transform plastic waste into a commodity, driving plastic recovery and creating incentives for industry to invest and transition. This is already true for materials like aluminium cans, which are highly recycled because the metal has an inherent value.

Ascension Island is thousands of miles from land, yet even there oceanic wildlife can’t escape plastic waste.
University of Western Australia – Marine Futures Lab / Ascension Island Government

By mobilising new technology to increase recycling rates, plastic flows to the ocean and the broader environment would slow, and hopefully cease altogether. A circular plastics economy would also significantly reduce carbon emissions created through new plastic production.




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Our relationship with plastic is broken

The vast majority of plastics produced to date are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are made from polymers – long molecular chains comprising smaller carbon-based molecules. Oil and gas are the cheapest materials from which to produce raw polymer resin. This resin is then made into plastic by adding dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.

Fossil fuel-based plastic has countless uses and is produced very cheaply. Plastic recycling has largely been overlooked because, in the developed world at least, our waste is carted away from our homes and often shipped overseas. This leaves little incentive to tackle our plastic addiction.

But our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality cannot persist.

In 2017, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, mainly plastics. This revealed the extent to which developed countries had been sending their waste problem elsewhere. In Australia this led to recyclables being stockpiled, landfilled or sent to countries ill-equipped to handle them.




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Media coverage is also increasingly highlighting the environmental impact of our throwaway culture: plastic washed up on beaches, filling the guts of endangered marine animals and accumulating en masse in circular ocean currents.

This is an abhorrent market failure, which conservatively costs US$ 2.2 trillion (A$3.25 trillion) each year in environmental and socioeconomic damages not taken into account by business or the consumer.

A turtle with a plastic bag fragment in its mouth. Plastic waste in the world’s oceans is devastating some marine life.
Melbourne Zoo

The Sea The Future initiative

We propose an initiative led by global manufacturers in which they make a voluntary financial contribution for each unit of new fossil fuel-based plastic produced. We have dubbed the initiative “Sea The Future”.

Placing a value on plastic both drives its collection and diverts new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution, estimated in our paper as averaging US$500 (A$738) per tonne, would be key to encouraging the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material.

The cost would be passed onto consumers via trillions of individual plastic items. The impact would be negligible – say, a few cents on a cup of coffee – and so is likely to gain broad public acceptance.

Anticipating the concerns of regulators that such a move could be perceived as anti-competitive, the lead author has engaged with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.

The contribution turns plastic waste into a cashable commodity, feeding the circular economy.

The estimated US$20 billion (A$29.5 billion) per year raised through the initiative would be used to help establish recycling infrastructure, aid industry transition and remediate the environment. Increased demand and a higher price for recycled material also promises to significantly improve the livelihoods of waste pickers – hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who currently carve meagre earnings from collecting plastic.




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The funds would be administered by a self-regulated global industry body, independently audited to ensure performance, accountability and transparency. To address concerns over governance costs, the Minderoo Foundation has committed to underwrite up to five years’ worth of audit fees totalling US$260 million (A$384 million), plus cover US$40 million (A$59 million) in start-up costs, subject to appropriate conditions.

The future is circular

Public pressure is mounting for action on plastics – and what is bad for the planet is ultimately bad for business. The alternatives to an industry-led approach are less appealing. Plastic bans deny us a useful product upon which our economies rely; taxes typically go directly to general revenue and are unlikely to be applied to plastic waste management. So, tax-derived funds are seldom transferred between nations, ignoring the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.

Our global discussions with companies throughout the plastics supply chain have revealed that the vast majority recognise the need to move away from a linear plastics economy. They also understand that a global, market-based mechanism is the only path to achieving the system-wide transformation required.

Society discards over 250 million tonnes of valuable polymer, worth at least a US$ 1,000 per tonne recycled, in plastic waste each year. Soon, if we do nothing, that could grow to 500 million tonnes per annum. What industry would allow half a trillion US dollars of waste each year? Recovering it is simply good business for the environment.The Conversation

Andrew Forrest, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, PhD Candidate in Marine Ecology, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

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.

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


Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

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

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

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




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

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

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

So what can we do about it?

Reduce first

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

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

Throw out recycling properly

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

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

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




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

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

Develop the industry

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

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

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




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

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

We need to chew and walk gum

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




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

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

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

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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