Our waste, our resource

13 September 2019

By Gayle Sloan, CEO of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia

Let me start off by saying, Australia recycles. Can we all do better? Absolutely.

Until about two years ago, the waste and resource recovery industry was rarely in the media spotlight. That’s now changed, and while this sudden burst of attention and interest is great, there are many unknowns and misconceptions. This includes the fundamental question, after my bins are collected, when and where does recycling happen?

A story in The Age about contamination at SKM’s material recovery facilities (MRFs) from yellow bin materials piqued my interest. MRFs receive ‘yellow bin’ materials and then proceed to separate for recycling. As recipients of yellow bin materials, contamination in MRFs is not a new phenomenon. However, I strongly believe the current challenges that operators are facing with the closure of markets and the collapse of SKM have resulted in higher contamination levels.

We are all well aware of the stories in the media – both positive and negative – about Australia’s recycling efforts and challenges of late. The closure of global markets for our recyclable materials means we need to find homes right here in Australia for our recyclables. This is a positive shift – waste management and resource recovery is a shared responsibility, and we should seek to manage our waste and resources in our own communities.

There is no quick fix. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, has to pull their weight in building a strong circular economy. The household collection and MRF processing part is just one part of the equation. Once the MRF sorts the recyclables (note: MRFs do not ‘recycle’, they sort materials into bales of single streams to then sell to those who remanufacture), we need somewhere to send these prepared materials. We need markets that buy the recycled material back in Australia.

At this present time however, Australia simply does not have enough manufacturing pull to absorb all the domestic recycled material we are collecting. This is changing, just as the international buyers who used to rely on access to our materials have to adjust their own business models. The transition is already underway and despite some of the media headlines, I urge you not to lose faith in the capacity of our waste management and resource recovery sector to deliver better outcomes.

The public is absolutely integral to the success of our industry. The power really is in your hands; the power in choosing what to buy (or not buy), the power to place the correct products in the correct bin, and the power to influence the way manufacturers, retailers, and governments act.

Coming back to contamination concerns as highlighted in The Age, it is so vitally important that we do not stop recycling. Here’s what will help.

The yellow bin is only for household material (and that does not include stuff from your garage or sheds attached to the house, as those containers often include hazardous material such as paint, fuels, batteries… stuff that might explode in a truck when compacted, and needs to be handled more carefully than general household packaging). 

All you have to remember is that the yellow bin and the MRFs that receive your yellow bin materials want paper and cardboard, containers (bottles, jars, tins, etc) from the kitchen, and containers from the laundry and bathroom - in simple terms, that is it!

MRFs do not refill your old containers. The don’t even turn your old containers into new containers. What they do is sort yellow bin materials into single streams, i.e. all the paper into a bale of paper, all the aluminium cans into bales of aluminium, and all plastics into bales of plastics, sometimes even into separate plastic types, think PET (water bottles) and HDPE (milk bottles). MRFs are designed to take the household materials that have value as a raw material and prepare each material type to be sent to the right place to be used. There’s no point sending an aluminium can to a paper mill, just as there’s no point sending a cardboard box to a plastics maker. The material itself might be recyclable, but it’s only recycled when the right material is sent to the right end market.

Where it’s gotten more and more complicated for MRFs is that many packaging products today comprise different types of materials in one product, which makes it difficult to sort. How you can help is to by exerting your buyer power. When you buy products, look at how it is packaged. If it is made of more than one material, you can either choose not to buy the product or, if you do, then separate it into its core parts (be a home MRF) and then place these items loosely in your bin. If you’re in doubt, it is far better to throw it out and put it in the red bin.

Modern MRFs are pretty awesome, high-tech operations… but they can’t perform miracles. They can’t make non-recyclable materials recyclable, even if you wish they could. They cannot separate each individual item of packaging into its component parts. So, please avoid buying stuff you don’t need and if you do need it, please buy products made of a single material as often as you can.

Remember, you can also call your council to see where other items (paint, batteries, etc.) can be recycled, but this sort of material does not go into the household bin. All that should go in the yellow bin is clean, dry household packaging!

We have to be realistic about what MRFs can do (and modern MRFs around the world have the same capabilities). Today, a water bottle has 10% contamination by weight (lid and label) which means there is no chance we are ever going to meet current export contamination levels. But here’s the thing: the industry does not want to export these materials. There are so many good reasons to sell these materials right here in Australia and turn them back into packaging, truly closing the loop on the products we consume.

The great thing is, Australia has many other ways to recycle items that are not suitable for the yellow bin. For example, plastic bags and soft plastics (the bane of a MRF’s existence) can be taken to many supermarkets to be collected by REDcycle, which works with companies including Replas to create street furniture and playground equipment. You may be sitting on a bench made of recycled soft plastics now! It is critically important that we continue to support these companies and buy their products that have turned our waste into a resource, creating a local market that means the material wasn’t sent to landfill or to a developing country where it might not be managed as well.

As we move forward, you can play a role by buying Australian recycled products. This is what true recycling means. Our job does not end at the bin, we have to buy it back! Next time you’re at the shops, look for products made from Australian recycled material (remember, this is your waste that has been turned into a resource and is returning to you for use), avoid single-use plastics, and look for recycled packaging. Finally, demand that your goods are made from your recyclables that you’ve put in your bin so that you can buy them back! Why else would you put it in the yellow bin?

Remember, this is our waste, our resource, let’s keep it here and buy it back!