The more the merrier? Not quite

13 September 2019

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

Recycling reports in the media this week turned our attention towards contamination issues at SKM’s material recovery facilities (MRFs) and how our “bad” recycling habits are costing Australia $328 million. The suggestion put forward is that we need more bins. Will this improve recycling and fix the systemic issues in Victoria, and what will it cost householders?

Now, what many do not know, which has led some to wonder whether we should roll out more bins, is that MRFs receive ‘yellow bin’ materials and then proceed to simply sort materials into bales of single streams to sell to those who remanufacture.

Our collection system is not the problem and Australia recycles – of course we can and must do better – but the issue at hand is that for many years, we were selling a proportion of our recyclables to Asian nations which given that is where the world’s manufacturing base is, made sense. However, with the closure of these markets, we need to create that manufacturing pull right here in Australia for our recyclables. This is a positive shift; we should seek to manage our waste and resources in our own communities.

The waste and resource recovery industry does not want to export recyclables and it is determined to create an Australian recycled remanufacturing sector because doing so will create more jobs, boost the local economy, and ensure that we truly close the loop on the products that we make and use. Our leaders agree and in August, COAG said it will ban the export of paper, glass, plastic and tyres.

In order for the ban to work, and to build a sustainable, long-term remanufacturing sector, we need solutions that require waste generators and producers taking responsibility for the materials they design and to pay the cost of managing this waste, just like the same companies do in Europe. Australia also needs more remanufacturers and more demand for recycled materials. This represents an important structural shift, which will take some time and will likely continue to be painful, but we must continue on this path.

The suggested alternative is to add a fourth or a fifth bin but the question is, without domestic demand for Australian recycled materials to begin with, plus the complexity of packaging (most products are made of multiple materials so just how many bins should we add to our collection system?), and the general confusion around how to use our bins correctly, what difference would adding more bins make other than lighten your wallet and increase truck movements?

In fact, the more consistent and simpler the collection system, the easier it is for people to do the right thing. So, let’s focus on fixing the real problems we’re facing, rather than rushing off in a piecemeal way that makes the collection and community education more confusing, without doing anything about the real problem - demand for recycled product.

This is what we need to do. Firstly, we need to change the way packaging is designed in Australia to ensure genuinely recyclable end uses for recycled material. It is looking up in this respect, with Australian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson reading the Product Stewardship Amendment (Packaging and Plastics) Bill 2019 for the second time in Parliament this week. The Bill will make the 2025 National Packaging Targets mandatory, establishing a mandatory product stewardship scheme (at last!) that will require manufacturers, importers, and distributors of consumer packaging and certain single-use plastics to deal with the problem. If this Bill passes, it will ensure that our packaging is truly recycled and the hope is that by putting the onus back on those who design and generate products, including shifting the cost of managing these materials at end-of-life to them from councils and local government, will make materials easier to recycle and create the requisite demand… we only need to look at the container deposit/refund (CDS/CRS) schemes being successfully rolled out across Australia to see the significant difference these have made to the recovery and use of CDS containers.

Victoria should also immediately turn its attention to a CDS as a first step, just as all other jurisdictions have, where container collection is funded by the scheme (the cost being met by the beverage industry) and not the household, and it is not an impost on local councils. A CDS ensures a clean stream of containers at a sufficient volume to meet the demand for bottle-to-bottle and other food grade recycling. Everything else in the yellow bin? Let’s leave it in there – not only will a CDS increase the value of what’s left in the yellow bin, we can and should recycle these yellow bin materials in other ways, such as using glass in civil infrastructure, as we actually don’t at present make enough food grade material to justify an additional separate collection.

Packaging is already complex and messages increasingly confusing. We know what we need (we need to remanufacture our recyclables into products that are demanded back in Australia) and to succeed, we don’t need more confusion, we need more national consistency, and this can be done by leaving our collection system alone since it is not the problem, and by maximising the benefits of a CDS in all jurisdictions, including and especially in Victoria.

And remember- you are not recycling, unless you are buying (Australian) recycled.