Balancing the good and the bad of plastics

There is a raft of potential changes and interventions that can be made to better position plastics as the remarkable material that it is, writes Matt Genever, Director Resource Recovery, Sustainability Victoria.

I recall not too long ago seeing a 1950s TV advertisement from the United States promoting the virtues of disposable plastics. A typical American family seated around the dinner table, enjoying a meal on plastic tableware – off the plaid orange and brown tablecloth (classic 50s!) – and sweeping the whole lot into the bin when they’re done…plates, bowls, knives, forks…all of it.  Selling the dream of a “hassle-free” life.

Thankfully things have changed, somewhat, since then. We saw the first global plastic waste revolution in the 80s – then in the 90s, with the move away from traditional glass packaging spurring the creation of the first kerbside recycling programs. More recently, the focus has been on the significant impact of poorly managed plastic entering our marine environment and the accumulation of microplastics.   

It is fair to say that the balance isn’t quite right yet. This useful, flexible, malleable and now ubiquitous material can play an infinitely useful role in our world, from lightweight prosthetic limbs to 3D models printed seemingly from mid-air. On the flipside, its use has also become a pervasive vehicle to feed our throwaway culture.

In Australia, we generate around 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, that’s around 100 kilograms of plastic waste for every person in the country. Despite the options for reuse and recycling, almost 2.2 million tonnes (87 per cent) are sent to landfill (National Waste Report 2018). However, recently shoots of new growth have emerged, signalling a dramatic change in the way we use, recover and, ultimately recycle plastic globally.

There is a raft of potential changes and interventions that can be made to better position plastics as the remarkable material that it is.

Demand and supply both need a kick start

There has been a good deal of talk on the role of government procurement in stimulating growth in the recycling sector, and rightly so. This is a fundamental step we need to get right in order to grow a healthy recycling ecosystem.

One of the things that strikes me is the fragmented nature of our current secondary manufacturing market for recyclables. On one side, there are materials that have well developed markets that need little or no intervention at all – like the use of recycled aggregates in roadbase and other civil construction. On the other side, there are markets that, even if government sent a strong procurement signal, would not necessarily be ready to respond immediately.

Plastic is a great example of this. The emerging opportunities are endless, from compressed plastic railway sleepers to companies like Advanced Circular Polymers who are producing food-grade recycled rPET and rHDPE. But in reality, there are only a handful of companies currently producing domestic, market-ready recycled products at scale in Australia.

So, it is important for government and industry to work together to make sure that the supply side is getting the support it needs to scale up as the demand grows through procurement mechanisms.

Industry has the momentum in its supply chain

One of the key factors that helped the United Kingdom to turn around its recycling system was a shift in the supply chain.

Specifically, the major supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s moved to control more of the waste and recycling flows in and out of their businesses, in some cases becoming quasi-recyclers in their own right.

In recent months, reflecting on the meetings I’ve had around investment in plastic recycling, it’s encouraging to see how many of these are from the packaging industry and food and beverage supply chain itself rather than from traditional recycling businesses. The convergence of public attitude toward plastic, new national packaging targets and the diminishing export market for mixed plastics is generating huge momentum.

You can’t spell circular economy without “jobs”

It is equal parts frustrating and astonishing that collectively we have not made a stronger link between recycling and the creation of new “advanced manufacturing” jobs in Australia. With a minimum wage of almost $19 and hour and wholesale energy prices sitting around 300 per cent higher than the US, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be a country that goes back to low margin mass-producing widgets. There is a huge opportunity for high-margin, bespoke plastic products to be made locally from recycled materials and exported internationally.

In its Advanced Manufacturing Roadmap, CSIRO notes that Australia could position itself as a sustainable manufacturing hub, focusing on high-value advanced materials and applications. At the core of these materials and products will be polymers, both natural and synthetic.  The options are there for us to either feed from energy-intensive virgin materials or plug in directly from a well-developed, domestic Australia recycling sector.

This paradigm isn’t new. Ten years ago, it was concrete. Five years ago, it was glass. We’ve built businesses, infrastructure and end-uses for these materials and we’ll do the same for plastics.

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Location, location, location essential to the future of C&D

Construction recyclers do most of the heavy lifting in Australian recycling, but several stones remain in the gears to drive its future, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC).

The trend isn’t hard to spot, behind the successful recycling strategy of any city are construction and demolition (C&D) recycling companies recovering large material volumes. C&D waste generation in 2016-17 (the latest year available) was just over 20 million tonnes nationally, or 38 per cent of the waste produced in Australia by weight.

Recovery of C&D materials across major urban centres can be as high as 90 per cent. So C&D recyclers have taken a hard problem, and over the last decade, have thoroughly crushed it.

Despite this welcome progress, many stones remain in the gears that drive its future development.

In 2019, the NWRIC undertook a survey of key C&D recyclers to determine barriers to advancing recycling in this sector. Our research identified six key areas for improvement:

  1. Implementation of effective specifications for the use of recycled aggregates in infrastructure construction
  2. Competition with virgin products
  3. Inconsistent landfill levies and insufficient enforcement resulting in levy avoidance
  4. Planning frameworks which often fail to provide certainty of site tenure
  5. Poor waste data that can inhibit policy and investment decisions
  6. Market economics that inhibit greater recovery of C&D materials in regional areas

While several of these challenges are self-explanatory, a few are worth discussing in detail.

The first is that local and state land use planning can fail to provide the site tenure required for some of the state’s highest performing C&D recovery facilities. This is a major challenge, as for C&D recovery facilities to be financially sustainable, they must be set close to urban centres where the waste materials are generated and eventually reused. Minimising transport distances is a key driver to the success of these facilities.

Likewise, these facilities require a reasonable footprint to be able to manage the flow of materials through the process; from receival, sorting, processing to stockpiling the various grades of final products ready for reuse.

Unfortunately, many of these sites across Australia are being threatened by encroachment of urban or commercial development, and in some cases, are being closed by local councils to create parks.

To solve this problem, the NWRIC recommends that current waste and recycling infrastructure plans that provide for C&D recycling be formally incorporated into local and state planning regulations, so that precincts or green zones for such facilities are clearly identified and protected for the long term. To be effective, the location and duration of tenure of these ‘green zones’ must be agreed by all levels of government.

A second major challenge is waste levy avoidance in the C&D recovery sector. Construction recyclers charge a gate fee to cover the cost of sorting and processing the materials they receive. This gate fee must be lower than the cost of landfill. To reach this cost, typically a landfill levy is required.

Unfortunately, where there are landfill levies, there is also levy avoidance resulting in potentially recyclable material being dumped or transported vast distances outside levy zones. One prominent example is the illegal waste stockpile in Lara, Victoria. This site contains a massive stockpile of up to 320,000 cubic meters of construction and demolition waste, including materials such as timber, concrete, bricks, plaster, glass and ceramics.

If one cubic meter weighs half a tonne, then this stockpile represents a loss of more than $10 million in levy revenue.  To clean up this illegal dump of C&D waste, the Victorian Government has committed $30 million, the largest waste related budget item for Victoria in 2019.

To ensure the success of the C&D recovery sector, states must address levy avoidance urgently. Possible solutions include better inter-agency engagement (across Police, EPAs and the ATO) to monitor and prevent illegal activity, and more widespread use of regulatory tools like mass balance reporting and GPS tracking.  Setting levies so any differences do not encourage its movement from one region or state to another, or applying the levy portability principle (i.e. the levy liability is a point of generation not disposal) both within and across state and territory boundaries.

Finally, C&D recovery providers can also help to support other recycling streams, including the recovery and reuse of tyres, glass and used plastics. Where these products are not suitable for cradle to cradle recycling, they can be reused as a substitute material for civil construction works. This further diversifies the market opportunities for these recovered materials, which in the past have relied on limited opportunities locally and internationally, ended up in landfill or illegally dumped.

This is why integration of state resource recovery infrastructure plans into local and state land use planning regulations is critical to the future success of C&D resource recovery. By securing space and long term tenure for these facilities states and territories will ensure a viable industry that can supply materials to the ongoing infrastructure development and construction needs of Australia.

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Composting remains our biggest recycling opportunity

With all the recent discussion about plastic exports, it’s easy to forget that organics remains our single largest recycling opportunity, writes Rose Read CEO of the National Waste Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC).

The numbers speak for themselves, according to the National Waste Report, Australia generated 30 million tonnes of organic material in 2016-17. Of this mass, about 6.7 million tonnes went to landfill (or 22 per cent) of which around 43 per cent is food waste according to the National Food Waste Baseline Report.

What are the benefits of composting?

There are many benefits to composting organics over sending them to landfill. Firstly, composting helps to recover nutrients and organic material that can regenerate soils, critical to agricultural productivity. Secondly, diverting organics from landfill reduces greenhouse gas emissions, odour and leachate.

Composting can also save council’s and ratepayers considerable expense. In the case of councils and shires that already have a kerbside garden organics recovery services, food can also be added at little cost, which currently can make up as much as 40 per cent of a kerbside rubbish bin.

Where is composting today?

Currently, about 42 per cent of households nationally have access to kerbside organics collection service according to the National Waste Report and 15 per cent have access to food and garden collection Services (FOGO).

South Australian households have the highest access to organic kerbside collections at 92 per cent, NSW 60 per cent and Victoria 56 per cent as reported by the federal Department of Environment and Energy in its report ‘Analysis of Australia’s municipal recycling infrastructure capacity’.

Strategically, each jurisdiction has a different approach to advancing their organics recovery and only Victoria has a dedicated organics resource recovery strategy. Overall, each state government has resource recovery targets for the next decade in the order of 65 per cent to 75 per cent for commercial and municipal streams. To achieve these targets the majority of tonnage will have to come from diverting organics including food waste to composting.

In terms of investment, NSW has the single largest funding program for organics recovery, with around $9 million per annum from 2017 to 2021 as part of the Waste Less, Recycle More. Victoria recently completed a $3.3 million organics recovery program and is currently focused on implementing its e-waste landfill ban and recycling challenges.

While Queensland does not have a specific organics’ program, funding is available through its Resource Recovery Industry Development Program. A key element of Western Australia’s new 2030 waste avoidance and resource recovery strategy is to have a consistent three bin kerbside collection system, including separation of food and garden organics from other waste categories, to be provided by all local governments in the Perth and Peel region by 2025.

How can we accelerate the diversion of organics from landfill in Australia?

While there is clear intent by each state and territory government to divert food and organics from landfill, the NWRIC, in consultation with the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA) has developed a four-part plan on how best to advance the composting sector.

1. Develop markets for compost

Further development of urban municipal and commercial markets has the potential to utilise large volumes of compost. Key markets include mine site rehabilitation and urban redevelopment such as highways. However, long term, agriculture has the potential to be the largest market for compost, improving soil carbon, providing healthy soils and promoting sustainable food production. Coordinated research and action that links organics diversion with the direct benefits of compost and soil carbon in agriculture is required to develop this market.

2. Long term planning for siting and protecting organic recycling facilities

In order to meet the recycling targets proposed in the state and national waste policies, Australia will need many new organics recycling facilities. The creation of organics recycling facilities requires appropriate sites and surrounding land buffers that are protected for the life of their operation. It is important that these sites are provisioned for in local and state government plans.

3. Reduce contamination in municipal and commercial waste derived compost

Compost derived from household and commercial bins can be contaminated with plastics and other undesirable materials. Through improved education and product stewardship, contamination can be reduced, and clean compost produced. Equally important will be ensuring that all compostable packaging used complies with Australian Standards for home composting AS 5810-2010 and or industrial composting AS 4736-2006 and is clearly labelled.

4. Enforcement of nationally consistent standards for the outputs from organics processing.

While most operators manufacture high quality organic products the presence of substandard products and facilities can undermine the market and damage consumer confidence. Therefore, the enforcement the existing standard for composting output AS4454 – 2012, Composts, soil conditioners and mulches is critical.

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