Almost half of Australia’s packaging waste is not being recovered for recycling, according to the first comprehensive study to track the fate of used packaging materials.
Overall, 56% of packaging was recovered for recycling in 2017-18, according to our study, carried out at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and published by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, a not-for-profit group that aims to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and is leading the effort to implement the National Packaging Targets.
Only 32% of plastic packaging was recovered for recycling, whereas the figure for paper and cardboard was 72%.
Used packaging materials such as glass, paper, metal and plastic make up 15% of all recyclable waste generated in Australia, according to our calculations based on available government data. By taking a snapshot of our current performance in recovering these materials, we can identify which areas are most in need of attention. This will help us work towards a “circular economy” approach in which packaging materials are reclaimed, reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.
Explainer: what is the circular economy?
The chart below shows that the most significant losses to landfill happen before waste is collected for sorting. Households and businesses are still throwing recyclable packaging, approximately 32% of total packaging consumed, into red bins instead of into recycling.
The 56% recovery figure includes packaging material recovered for export, as well as materials that are currently stockpiled. This includes glass which is not currently in high demand for local manufacturing.
Waste exported overseas represents a significant proportion – about 34% – of total packaging waste recovered. Evidently, there is a clear opportunity to improve local waste management practices and grow local demand for products that contain recycled materials. This would help make Australia’s packaging system more resilient to fluctuations in global markets.
The biggest recent market shock was the recycling crisis sparked by China’s decision to limit the imports of large amounts of recyclable materials.
In April last year, state and federal environment ministers and local governments reacted to that crisis with the launch of the National Packaging Targets. This included a pledge to pursue circular economy principles.
In practice, this means avoiding packaging waste, improving local recovery of recyclables, and increasing the demand for products that contain recycled materials. Already we have seen major brands such as Unilever commit to using at least 25% locally sourced recycled plastic in packaging such as shampoo bottles. This is a big step in the right direction, and aligns with the trending global agenda to eliminate plastic pollution.
However, developing a circular economy for packaging in Australia requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain. This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector.
Better source separation is important and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle. These strategies are already supported by the new Australasian Recycling Label, which could potentially be mandated for all types of packaging.
A further consequence of better source separation is a reduction in the contamination of the collected materials. This would improve the efficiency of the material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort the mixed recyclables into separate streams for reprocessing.
What we also need is more and better data on packaging consumption and recycling infrastructure capabilities. Some future actions are clear, such as addressing problematic plastic packaging. Others decisions that might involve broad systemic interventions need more information about the best way to encourage packaging circularity. Key to success will be the willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving.
This article was coauthored by Brooke Donnelly, chief executive of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation.
Ben Madden, Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Over the weekend, Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued notices for a major recycling company to stop receiving waste at two of its sites.
While the full consequences of these notices are yet to be realised, in the short term this means at least one council will have to dump kerbside recycling in landfill.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s a result of China’s decision to stop accepting Australia’s recyclables, and a clear sign we’ve been playing catch-up but not focusing on sustainable solutions. We need to work out how to deal with recycling in Australia – and determine how much it will cost, and who will pay.
We’re missing a piece of the financial puzzle
Kerbside collections are of course funded by householders as part of their annual rates. After China stopped buying Australian recycling we saw the garbage component of rates rise, so the collection aspect of the costs seems to be addressed. But of course there are a range of materials that cannot be placed in kerbside bins, but can be recycled.
As reported recently in The Age, analysis by an environmental consultancy has found the prices consumers may have to pay to ensure there are systems in place to recycle a range of specific items. For example, it would cost A$16 to recycle a mattress. Given that my local landfill charges A$23 to dispose of a mattress, it seems to make economic sense to pay into a compulsory recycling scheme (and I would not have to transport the mattress to the landfill, which is another bonus).
However, the piece of the loop that is missing is the encouragement (by levies or incentives), for businesses to use more recycled materials in their products.
It does not make sense to collect and stockpile recyclable materials until commodity prices are high enough to justify sorting them. This habit makes us dependent on overseas markets and creates domestic issues.
Nor is it good to have a stop-start approach, in which recyclables are sorted properly when there is space, but sent to landfill when there is not (or have householders call the council fortnightly to see whether they should place their recycling bin out).
A recycling industry association has provided a ten-point plan for resolving what they consider the essential issues with recycling. This very positive list includes investing waste levy funds into recycling, providing incentives for companies to use more recycled material, and educating consumers and businesses on recycling issues.
Encouraging businesses to use more recycled material is crucial. Instead of just reporting how much of their waste is recycled rather than sent to landfill, all organisations should report on the percentage of materials they buy from recycled sources.
This would help consumers make better buying decisions, and give guidance for governments to target specific sectors or programs to increase the use of recyclables.
We need a “fresh eyes” approach to how we manage waste, focusing equally on the environmental, economic and social aspects of this issue. One barrier is the lack of a centralised approach by all three spheres of government. It doesn’t make sense for state or local governments to have to to manage this large-scale infrastructure issue in isolation.
The largest portion of responsibility for waste management lies with the generator, but that is not to say others may not have a level of involvement. We all have some responsibility for the waste we create in our own homes, and how we dispose of it. Besides recycling, that also means (where possible) avoiding and reducing trash, and buying items made with recyclables – this is called “closing of the loop”.
Some businesses have made significant efforts to reduce their dependence on virgin raw materials, and are using recycled material to either make or package their products. But we do not hear much about this.
Perhaps it is time for a scheme similar to the “Buy Australian” program or energy efficiency stars, which would enable consumers to readily identify the level of recycled material in a product. Currently it is very difficult to tell.
Retailers often say they’re driven by consumers in what they can provide, so why not use our supposed power to force improvements (and more importantly, reductions), in use of virgin materials?
The banning of plastic bags by supermarkets was consumer-driven – so now is the time to encourage companies to reduce their waste burden. Perhaps you can approach a retailer about excess packaging, or make sure you check the label to see if an item was made or packaged with recycled materials.
As we move towards a federal election we should also be asking what our political parties are proposing to do about our waste crisis. It’s time to ask local candidates about their sustainable plan for resolving Australia’s issues with recycling, waste management and reducing resource use.
Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India
The world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, according to a recent UN report, but only 20% is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing nations.
India generates more than two million tonnes of e-waste annually, and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries from around the world – including Australia.
We visited India to examine these conditions ourselves, and reveal some of the devastating effects e-waste recycling has on workers’ health and the environment.
More than 95% of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers. They are often referred to as “kabadiwalas” or “raddiwalas” who collect, dismantle and recycle it and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organisational system. Little has changed since India introduced e-waste management legislation in 2016.
We visited e-waste dismantlers on Delhi’s outskirts. Along the narrow and congested alleyways in Seelampur we encountered hundreds of people, including children, handling different types of electronic waste including discarded televisions, air-conditioners, computers, phones and batteries.
Squatting outside shop units they were busy dismantling these products and sorting circuit boards, capacitors, metals and other components (without proper tools, gloves, face masks or suitable footwear) to be sold on to other traders for further recycling.
Local people said the waste comes here from all over India. “You should have come here early morning, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” a trolley driver told us.
Seelampur is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India. Each day e-waste is dumped by the truckload for thousands of workers using crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium. The process involves acid burning and open incineration, creating toxic gases with severe health and environmental consequences.
Workers come to Seelampur desperate for work. We learned that workers can earn between 200 and 800 rupees (A$4-16) per day. Women and children are paid the least; men who are involved with the extraction of metals and acid-leeching are paid more.
Income is linked to how much workers dismantle and the quality of what is extracted. They work 8-10 hours per day, without any apparent regard for their own well-being. We were told by a local government representative that respiratory problems are reportedly common among those working in these filthy smoke-filled conditions.
Delhi has significant air and water pollution problems that authorities struggle to mitigate. We were surprised to learn that the recycling community does not like to discuss “pollution”, so as not to raise concerns that could result in a police raid. When we asked about the burning of e-waste, they denied it takes place. Locals were reluctant to talk to us in any detail. They live in fear that their trade will be shut down during one of the regular police patrols in an attempt to curb Delhi’s critical air and water problems.
As a result of this fear, e-waste burning and acid washing are often hidden from view in the outskirts of Delhi and the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or done at night when there is less risk of a police raid.
Incidentally, while moving around Seelampur we were shocked to see children playing in drains clogged with dumped waste. During the drier months drains can catch fire, often deliberately lit to reduce waste accumulation.
After our tour of Seelampur we visited Mandoli, a region near Delhi where we were told e-waste burning takes place. When we arrived and asked about e-waste recycling we were initially met with denials that such places exist. But after some persistence we were directed along narrow, rutted laneways to an industrial area flanked by fortified buildings with large locked metal doors and peephole slots not dissimilar to a prison.
We arranged entry to one of these units. Among the swirling clouds of thick, acrid smoke, four or so women were burning electrical cables over a coal fire to extract copper and other metals. They were reluctant to talk and very cautious with their replies, but they did tell us they were somewhat aware of the health and environmental implications of the work.
We could not stay more than a few minutes in these filthy conditions. As we left we asked an elderly gentleman if people here suffer from asthma or similar conditions. He claimed that deaths due to respiratory problems are common. We also learned that most of these units are illegal and operate at night to avoid detection. Pollution levels are often worse at night and affect the surrounding residential areas and even the prisoners at the nearby Mandoli Jail.
We had the luxury of being able to leave after our visit. It is devastating to think of the residents, workers and their children who spend their lives living among this toxic waste and breathing poisonous air.
Field trips such as this help illustrate a tragic paradox of e-waste recycling in developed versus developing nations. In Australia and many other advanced industrialised economies, e-waste collection is low and little is recycled. In India, e-waste collection and recycling rates are remarkably high.
This is all due to informal recyclers, the kabadiwalas or raddiwalas. They are resourceful enough to extract value at every stage of the recycling process, but this comes with a heavy toll to their health and the environment.
This article was co-written by Ms. Alankrita Soni, UNSW Alumni & practising Environmental Architect from India.
Our beaches are our summer playgrounds, yet beach litter and marine debris injures one-fifth of beach users, particularly children and older people.
Our research, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found more than 7,800 injuries on New Zealand beaches each year – in 2016, some 595 of them were related to beach litter. The most common injuries caused by litter were punctures and cuts, but they also included fractured limbs, burns, head trauma, and even blindness.
Children under 14 suffered 31% of all beach litter injuries, and were injured by beach litter at twice the rate compared with other locations in New Zealand. Beach litter injury claims exceeded NZ$325,000 in 2016, representing a growing proportion of all beach injury claims. Beach injury claims changed from 1.2% of the total in 2007 to 2.9% in 2016.
Our study relied on reported injury insurance claims in New Zealand, and thus probably underestimates the true injury rate, particularly for minor wounds. Our 2016 survey of beachgoers in Tasmania found that 21.6% of them had been injured by beach litter at any time previously – even on the island state’s most picturesque beaches.
Alarmingly, most beach users in the Tasmanian survey did not consider beach litter an injury risk, despite the high rate of self-reported injuries.
Awash with danger
As more debris washes ashore and our recreational use of our coasts increases, it is more likely than ever before that we will encounter beach litter, even on remote and “pristine” beaches.
Global studies have found up to 15 items of debris per square metre of beach, even in remote locations. On Henderson Island – a supposedly pristine South Pacific outpost miles from anywhere – some 3,570 new pieces of litter arrive every day on one beach alone.
Beach litter typically includes a huge range of items, such as:
- broken glass
- sharp and rusted metal such as car bodies, food cans, fish hooks, and barbed wire
- flammable or toxic materials such as cigarette lighters, flares, ammunition and explosives, and vessels containing chemicals or rotten food
- sanitary and medical waste such as used syringes, dirty nappies, condoms, tampons and sanitary pads
- bagged and unbagged dog faeces and dead domestic animals.
The health hazards posed by beach litter include choking or ingesting poisons (particularly for young children), exposure to toxic chemicals, tripping, punctures and cuts, burns, explosions, and exposure to disease.
Degrading plastic can also produce toxins that contaminate seafood, potentially entering human or ecological food chains.
Despite the potential severity of these hazards our understanding and study of human health impacts from beach litter is poor. We know more about the impacts of beach litter and marine debris on wildlife than on humans.
Two of our previous studies in Australia and New Zealand have found beach litter that can cause punctures and cuts at densities 227 items per 100 square metres of beach, and choking hazards at densities of 153 items per 100 square metres of beach. These exposures to beach litter hazards in Australia and New Zealand may be 50% higher than global averages (based on preliminary data).
Even “clean” beaches can be hazardous, and may even increase the likelihood of injury. Visitors to a recently cleaned or supposedly “pristine” beach may be less vigilant for hazards. What’s more, European studies have found that actively cleaned beaches can still have hazardous debris items.
The risk of injury will continue to increase without concerted efforts to prevent addition of new debris and the active removal of existing rubbish. Besides watching where we tread when at the beach and participating in beach cleanups, we also need to make sure we deal with rubbish thoughtfully, so litter doesn’t end up there in the first place.
Marnie Campbell, Chevron Harry Butler Chair in Biosecurity and Environmental Science, Murdoch University; Cameron McMains, PhD Candidate, Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University; Chad Hewitt, Professor and Director, Murdoch Biosecurity Research Centre, Murdoch University, and Mariana Campos, Lecturer and researcher, Murdoch University
On average, renovating a home generates far more waste than building a new one from scratch.
This waste goes straight to landfill, damaging the environment. It also hurts your budget: first you have to pay for demolition, then the new materials, and then disposal of leftover building products.
By keeping waste in mind from the start and following some simple guidelines, you can reduce the waste created by your home renovation.
1. It starts with the design
Waste is often treated as inevitable, factored into a building budget with no serious attempt to reduce it.
By raising the issue early with your architect, designer or builder, they can make decisions at the design stage that reduce waste later. Often the designers and architects don’t see their decisions contributing to waste – or rather, they don’t really think about it.
During my research on reducing construction waste, I asked one architect what he thought happens to the waste generated. He laughed with a glint in his eyes and said, “I think it disappears into pixie dust!”
One simple early decision that dramatically reduces waste is designing with material sizes in mind. If you have a ceiling height that does not match the plasterboard sheet, you end up with a tiny little strip that has to be cut out of a full sheet. In the case of bricks, not matching the ceiling height is even more wasteful.
Obviously not all materials will work together at their standard sizes (and you need to fit your renovation to the existing house). But sensitive design can make intelligent trade-offs, reducing overall waste.
When I asked architects why they don’t design zero-waste buildings more often, they said clients don’t ask for it. Make it part of your brief, and ask the architect how they can save money by using the materials efficiently.
2. Get your builder involved early
If you’re using an architect for your renovation, it’s common to have very little collaboration between them and the builder. Any errors or issues are usually spotted after construction has begun, requiring expensive and wasteful rework.
Instead, ask your architect and builder to collaborate on a waste management plan. Such integrated approaches have worked well in Australia and the United States.
This means clients, engineers and builders are collaborating, rather than taking adversarial roles. For such contracts to work, it’s important to involve all parties early in the project, and to encourage cooperation.
The briefing stage is an opportunity for architects, quantity surveyors and builders to work together to identify a waste minimisation target.
3. Whatever you do, don’t change your mind
One the biggest contributions to waste on sites is late design changes. Client-led design changes are identified in all literature as having far-reaching implications on waste.
These are mostly due to owners changing their mind once something is built. Reworking any part of a building due to design changes can account for as much as 50% of the cost overrun, as well as causing delays and generating waste.
The early work with your design and construction team outlined in the first steps gives you the chance to make sure you’re committed to your original design. Skimping in the planning stage can end up costing you far more in the long run.
4. Deconstruction, not demolition
Ask your builder not to demolish the building, but to deconstruct it. Deconstruction means taking a building apart and recovering materials for recycling and reuse. This provides opportunities for sorting materials on site.
Salvaged materials can be resold to the community or reused in the renovations. It greatly reduces the tip fees which are usually higher for mixed waste (typical from demolition process) and lower for sorted waste.
Of course this takes more time and has an additional cost. Therefore you do have to balance the cost of deconstruction against the savings.
Denmark, which recycles 86% of its construction waste, has made it mandatory for all government buildings to undergo selective demolition and sorting of construction waste. A good place to start in Australia is your state environment department, which may have guidelines on what is involved.
5. Choose materials carefully
Good-quality materials last longer, reducing maintenance later. Choosing manufacturers that use minimal packaging also reduces waste (be careful here to check the difference between “minimal” and “inadequate” packaging, as the latter can mean your material breaks).
Reusing materials from your renovation may also be an option (you will need to discuss this with architect and builder at the beginning of the project). Finally, using materials with recycled content is a great option, and boosts our recycling industry.
The return of the breeze block
In March 2017 the Housing Industry Association released data suggesting the Australian residential building industry will increasingly become more dependent on renovation work rather than new construction,
If you’re renovating your home, making efficiency and low waste a priority helps cut costs and reduce landfill.
Australia’s government has announced new planned waste recycling targets, as part of its response to the crisis prompted by China’s decision to crack down on recycling imports earlier this year.
That process is now in train. Following engagement with industry and government working groups, a proposed update to the policy is now open for public comment.
So how well does the proposed new policy incorporate circular economy principles? The short answer is, not well enough.
Explainer: what is the circular economy?
A circular economy is centred on keeping products, components and materials circulating in use for as long as possible, through long-lasting design, repair, reuse, re-manufacturing and recycling. The ultimate aim is to minimise the amount of resources consumed, and waste generated, by our economic activities.
The proposed principles, targets and strategies are a good start. They will help tackle a range of issues, including:
- dealing with China’s recycling imports crackdown by improving local capacity
- increasing the currently limited responsibility for products at end of life
- focusing on organic waste (such as food and textiles), one of the major obstacles to current recovery rates
- reducing litter and marine plastic debris
- harmonising the various disparate state policies.
Yet these proposals, while all crucial, represent only a moderate evolution from our current situation, rather than the revolution needed to truly embrace the circular economy.
The policy’s major focus is still on recycling and recovery, and while recycling is certainly a “circular” activity, the circular economy involves so much more than simply improving how we reclaim and reprocess unwanted materials.
A truly circular society aims to transform our whole system of production and consumption, with innovative approaches like “products as services” (through leasing or collaborative consumption) and designing for next life and new life (through repairability, modularity and disassembly).
Global changes, local opportunities
The proposed policy misses the opportunity to focus on innovation and create a step change in not only the resource recovery industry, but our whole economy and broader society.
The public arguably has more awareness of this issue than ever before, thanks to the continuing emergence of sustainability as a concept, combined with China’s shock to our recycling industry and the media focus afforded by campaigns such as the ABC’s War on Waste documentary series.
Public awareness and expectation is one thing, but to deliver on these goals the national waste policy must strengthen the explicit adoption of circular economy principles and significantly increase support to transition towards it.
This includes such things as:
- appointment of a Commissioner for Circular Economy
- explicit targets for reuse, repair, reassembly and remanufacture
- “Circular” procurement of goods and infrastructure
- support for innovation in business models for circular economy
- standards for imports, not just local production
- federal tax incentives, funding, and research and development to enable all of the above.
Australia has a unique opportunity to lay the building blocks for the type of economy and society we want. Let’s hope we can get it right.