ACOR’s recycling reboot

Waste Management Review speaks to the Australian Council of Recycling about how its new board reflects the new reality of recycling.  

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, Australia ranks 17th for its recycling performance against other OECD countries. 

With higher manufacturing costs and a long history of exporting materials overseas, local recycling innovations have been limited. Some businesses have taken a risk and gained a first-mover advantage in critical areas such as battery recycling or asphalt additives made from soft plastics. Other pockets of the industry have historically been focused on moving and shipping, but this is now changing. 

The changes come at a crucial time for the sector, as it endeavours to stave off sovereign risk as countries such as India, Malaysia and Thailand follow China’s direction in banning waste imports.

The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has been seeking to shift the recycling narrative from waste management to a circular economy, shining the spotlight on the businesses working to build the nation’s domestic capacity. 

ACOR appointed a new board in March this year at its Annual General Meeting. The new board includes imaging consumables recyclers Close the Loop, Reconomy, a business started by Downer, glass manufacturers O-I and Queensland Container Deposit Scheme (CDS) recyclers Envirobank. Tyrecycle, Re-Group, SIMS Metal Management, Veolia, VISY and Global Renewables also form key members of the board.  

The board reflects ACOR’s unique value proposition by focusing on industry advancement of the broader resource recovery and recycling sector. The wide array of expertise supports ACOR’s ability to foster a greater understanding of recycling’s full social, economic and environmental benefits and contribution. Ultimately, the board aims to grow the industry’s crucial role as a product manufacturer and solutions provider. 

With more than 25 years of experience in government, corporate, NGO and consulting roles, ACOR CEO Pete Shmigel has also made significant efforts to raise the profile of the sector since assuming the role in 2018.

VALUE ADDING

Peter Tamblyn, ACOR President and Close the Loop’s Head of Sales in Asia Pacific, says the new board signals a clear shift in the sector’s focus from collection and shipping waste to value adding to the economy. 

Close the Loop is Australia’s largest resource recovery company for imaging consumables. 

The company last year developed an asphalt additive using waste toner. Dubbed Tonerplas, the material is collected from printer cartridges via programs such as Cartridges 4 Planet Ark and soft plastics via the RedCycle and Plastic Police programs.

For more than eight years, Close the Loop has partnered with Downer, one of the largest non-government-owned road services business to bring recycled content to Australian roads.

Peter says that with China shutting its doors and now India looking to ban solid plastic waste imports, a paradigm shift has occurred over the past 12 to 18 months in the domestic recycling market, with consumer awareness increasing. 

“I think the community rightfully expects that what they put in the recycling bin should be manufactured into a new product,” Peter explains.

This year, ACOR launched its 2019 agenda and 10-point plan for results-based recycling. The plans are about creating a self-sufficient sector that enables employment and prevents pollution. Using recyclate rather than virgin materials and recovering energy from residual waste is front and centre within this model.

Some of the highlights of the 10-point plan are calls for governments to invest $1.5 billion of waste disposal levy funds into recycling and strengthen end-of-life producer responsibility schemes, build a sustainable domestic recycling sector through national development and improve government approaches to planning, regulation and enforcement.

Improving government approaches to planning, regulation and enforcement requires better regulatory classification to ensure waste materials are treated as manufacturing inputs. 

Peter says that domestic resource recovery is also about protecting sovereign risk in the country. While rebooting local recycling won’t happen overnight, Peter stresses the importance of making a valuable start.

“The journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step. We’re seeing a lot of innovative reuse products coming through already. For example, our Tonerplas product is not just about producing new products, but making them superior to the standard.

“In our case, it adds significant characteristics to asphalt. For example, it improves fatigue life by 65 per cent over standard asphalt.”

Peter says this makes roads last longer with reduced maintenance and rutting, and resistance to the impact of heavy vehicle traffic.

According to the 10-point plan, investing $1.5 billion of waste disposal levy funds into recycling would see investment in infrastructure and technology, including first-grade sorting and enhanced reprocessing. 

Investing in recyclate market development research and development and commercialisation projects and government “buy recycled” purchasing initiatives also play a critical role in advancing the sector.

RECONOMY 

Jim Appleby, ACOR Vice President and General Manager Reconomy at Downer, says that as the biggest procurers in Australia, an opportunity exists for governments to drive the use of recyclables. Last year, Downer launched its Reconomy start-up off the back of its long history of sustainability.

“We have taken brave steps to be the first adopters in this space and this will hopefully show the industry this is a safe business to be in and that government has to help bring the materials to market,” Jim says.

Jim says that Downer has invested significant time and effort into working with regulators and their respective technical departments to instil confidence that the products are fit for purpose. 

The company ramped up its recycling efforts with the launch of a new detritus processing facility in Sydney, capable of diverting more than 21,000 tonnes of waste from landfill per annum, from street sweepings or stormwater. Materials such as organic matter, sand, gravel, metals and plastics are able to be processed and separate, ready for reuse in Downer’s products or sold into other streams of use.

In an Australian-first it also partnered with Close the Loop to construct a Victorian road made from soft plastics from used plastic bags and packaging, waste toner from used printer cartridges and waste glass destined for landfill. This was subsequently mirrored in NSW, SA, Tasmania and the ACT. 

Jim says that its Reconophalt product, made from recycled soft plastic, toner and glass, not only makes use of challenging waste streams, but produces a high-performing asphalt product.

He says that talks are underway in the NT, WA and QLD with government at all levels to introduce the material on their roads. 

“In the long term, we would like to see it replace traditional asphalt and get new and improved products on the road network,” he says.

According to ACOR’s 10-point plan, standardising recycling through an annual national recycling and garbage bin audit would determine performance benchmarks and progress in kerbside recycling. A recycling commodity index is another priority to enable better risk awareness and sharing between parties. 

Close the Loop is Australia’s largest resource recovery company for imaging consumables.

Peter says that the online recyclable product database would enable stakeholders to identify material availability and location, creating valuable collection, processing and recycling partnerships.

HIGH-PERFORMING GLASS 

Improving the value of recyclables is essential for Envirobank, a supplier of recycling technologies and the network provider for the Queensland CDS. Narelle Anderson, Managing Director of Envirobank, says that as an emerging industry, CDS schemes need to be supported for bringing new technologies and jobs to the country.

While a CDS has been in place in SA for almost 40 years and NT for close to a decade, Narelle the emergence of NSW, QLD and WA into the market represents further innovations in reverse vending machine (RVM) technology and high-speed counting machines, improving sorting efficiency and encouraging consumers to recycle.

“A new product Envirobank has introduced is a smart pod bulk return system in public places to return bags of materials instead of a single feed,” Narelle says.

One of the items on the ACOR agenda is to introduce new sector-specific groups and structure in ACOR across areas such as CDS operators, the metals sector, plastic reprocessors and e-waste recyclers. Narelle says that this new structure acknowledges the industry is changing and that emerging industries will require support. 

ACOR’s 10-point plan comprises a national industry development focus, which includes examining how CDS and conventional kerbside recycling schemes could work in harmony.

“Surprisingly in Australia, many councils are without a kerbside service, so for those councils, a CDS enables ratepayers in the community to actually recycle and be paid for that,” she says.

Craig Mynott, ACOR Treasurer and Regional Cullet Director for O-I, welcomes ACOR’s changing focus.

“For over 50 years, O-I has provided a domestic solution for glass recycling. Over the past five years, O-I’s four Australian glass manufacturing facilities have used an average of 250,000 tonnes of cullet [recycled glass] every year, making glass containers for the food and beverage industry,” Craig says.

“This represents an average recycle content of 37 per cent and is a truly closed loop process.”

In 2015, O-I reinforced its commitment to glass recycling by establishing a glass recycling facility at its Brisbane Cullet Plant. A key global target for O-I is increasing post-consumer cullet to an average of 50 per cent in 2025.

With set priorities across each quarter, ACOR’s 19 agenda is increasingly being implemented. One of its top priorities is a new contamination education program known as Project YellowSail, set for launch in the second quarter of this year. Peter says the project in partnership with the NSW EPA has already received interest from other regulators across the states and territories. 

“I see the market evolving quite quickly if we get support in the early stages from government at all levels. ACOR’s role is to champion the 10-point plan and ensure we create a vibrant recycling industry, and I think the new board reflects that,” he says.

This article was published in the May issue of Waste Management Review.

Featured image: Close the Loop’s Somerton facility.