Recycling is not a con. Here's why

Date: 13-Apr-19
Author: Ryan Collins

Recycle but leave out plastic bags © Planet Ark

The waste and recycling industry has been put under the spotlight in a 60 Minutes segment with a teaser proclaiming recycling is “the biggest con of all time”. While the issues raised by 60 Minutes must be addressed, we are concerned this, and other media pieces, might cause Australians to ask if they should keep recycling. Planet Ark says yes, and this is why:

  • Recycling is not a conThe recycling process recovers and diverts over 37 million tonnes of materials such as aluminium, steel, glass, paper and cardboard, and plastic away from landfills and reduces our reliance on virgin resources. There are issues exporting plastic waste to Malaysia, but this represents just 0.2% of the total amount of recycling for Australia.
  • Three decades of recyclingKerbside recycling has been happening in Australia for over 30 years since collections began in the 1980s. 91% of Australians agree it’s the right thing to do and in that time we've had some big improvements.
  • Plastic makes up less than 9%There are problems with plastic materials being exported for processing, but this material only makes up less than 9% of the kerbside recycling bin by weight.
  • Onshore recycling expansionOver 30% of plastic recycling in Australia is processed at home and this number would increase dramatically with domestic investment. 

Read on for more in-depth information and what you can do…

Putting it in perspective

The 60 Minutes story placed a big focus on the destination of Australia’s plastic recycling. But to put that in perspective, plastic makes up just 6-9% by weight of the contents of your kerbside recycling bin. That’s not to say that plastic isn’t a problem, especially in terms of the proliferation of single-use items like beverage packaging, takeaway containers and straws and their impact on wildlife when littered.  

Overall, 30% of recycled plastic is processed in Australia with 70% exported overseas. There are issues exporting plastic waste to Malaysia, but this represents just 0.2% of the total amount of recycling for Australia. Without doubt, much more should be done domestically but there are some great examples of programs and companies leading the way for plastic recycling solutions in Australia. 

Why should we recycle?  

Every Australian produces waste and the unfortunate reality is, we all contribute to landfill, either directly with our home waste or indirectly through our workplaces and the products and services we purchase. Municipal solid waste (the stuff collected in our kerbside bins) makes up 13.8 million tonnes or 20.6% of the total waste generated (67 million tonnes). Of this waste generated we recycle 6.35 million tonnes which gives us a kerbside recycling rate of 46%. 

Generally, the recycling and waste industry is doing okay in moving materials back to markets since China’s new waste policy effectively put restrictions on the import of plastic and paper and cardboard waste. Australia’s rates of waste generation and recycling are only average for a developed economy, so more can be done, and when the options of reduce, reuse and repair are not possible, recycling is still the best option. Getting those materials back into a domestic circular economy is the key. 

Everyone has a role in recycling 

The journey of your recycling and its final destination varies widely depending on the material, the council, the recycler and global commodity markets. Each link in the chain plays a vital function in ensuring recycling is done correctly and each link requires support if it is to fulfil its function well and deal with more of our waste in Australia. 

Right now, the Australian industry needs support from everyday Australians and the governments that represents them. As individuals, the most important ways we can support the industry are by recycling correctly and buying back products that contain recycled materials. But this in itself will not expand the industry's capacity in terms of infrastructure and investment, which is where government needs to step in to provide support. 

Like any other industry, recycling is vulnerable to the fluctuations of the commodities market. This is where government policy including incentives for manufacturers to use recycled content could play a role. All levels of government could help the domestic market as well by creating Australian recycled content policies for their purchases, from large infrastructure projects to office supplies. Indeed, one of the five principles of the new National Waste Policy 2018 is to “increase use of recycled material and build demand and markets for recycled products”.

The opportunity

Like the ABC’s War on Waste before it, 60 Minutes has brought the issue of waste management to the fore, and now major players in the industry, our politicians and the community are talking about it. We see this as a very good thing and a great opportunity for significant investment in onshore recycling. 

Australia is generating less municipal waste per capita and recycling more of what is generated than in years prior. Planet Ark believes the emerging circular economy will provide a significant solution to the problem of waste. 

What can you do? 

There are plenty of positive environmental actions you can take with waste: 

  • Reduce. Reuse. Recycle! Reduce consumption where possible, especially of single-use items like plastic bags. Reuse existing items rather than repurchasing something new. If you can’t reduce or reuse, then recycle. 
  • Recycle right: Find out what can and can’t be recycled in your area by contacting your local council or visit recyclingnearyou.com.au. Check if packaging has the Australasian Recycling Label which is being rolled out on more products every day.
  • Be a conscious consumer: Consider the packaging of a product when making a purchasing decision. What will you do with the packaging? Can you take your own container or buy in bulk to reduce waste? 
  • Buy it back: Look for products made from recycled materials on Planet Ark’s Recycled Products Directory, such as recycled toilet tissue or recycled office paperand help close the recycling loop. 
  • Contact your local MP: If you’re concerned about what’s happening to your waste and recycling, contact your local MP to encourage support for buying recycled content and investing in recycling infrastructure and education.

Read about the recycling industry's response to the 60 Minutes report.

Sources: 

All statistics on this page are sourced from the Australian National Waste Report 2018, Blue Environment’s Data on exports of Australian wastes (Jan 2019) or Planet Ark’s National Recycling Week 2018 From Waste War to Recycling Reboot Report. 

 

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Ryan                                              Collins
Author: Ryan Collins

Ryan is the Head of Sustainable Resource Programs at Planet Ark. After nearly a decade working in the banking and finance industry Ryan was drawn to a career in environmental conservation that saw him work in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji. With a background in psychology and environmental management, Ryan’s role at Planet Ark since 2012 has been focused on developing engaging and positive environmental behaviour change programs to help everyone recycle and reduce waste.



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