Four metropolitan Melbourne councils have rolled out a successful flexible plastics kerbside recycling program with the help of the Metropolitan Local Government Waste and Resource Recovery Fund.
As one of the last remaining recyclable items to be collected through kerbside waste collection, flexible plastics present both an opportunity for councils and a challenge.
Australians use approximately 300,000 tonnes of flexible plastics in Australia, according to the 2015-16 National Recycling and Recovery Survey. However, the survey showed in that year just over one sixth of this was collected and recycled.
In its report to Melbourne’s Boroondara City Council, the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) notes that most flexible plastics are imported as product packaging or as packaging film.
Each day, Australians consume flexible plastics in the form of food packaging, including bread, rice, fruit and vegetables. The plastics are also found in freight packaging, retail carry bags and mattresses, computers and pet food. They even include bin liners and plastic bags, which make up a small percentage of this waste stream.
The need to dispose of this common waste stream in a responsible way was recognised by four Melbourne councils last year, who spent more than a year planning their flexible plastics recycling program. The project received $300,000 in funding from the Victorian Government’s Metropolitan Local Government Waste and Resource Recovery Fund. SKM Recycling and the Australian Packaging Covenant partnered on the project and contributed additional resources and funding.
It required a significant community education program, with input from Nina Thomas, Program Coordinator at MWRRG. Speaking at this year’s Australian Waste Expo at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Nina explained that one of the most significant hurdles was changing residents’ disposal habits, particularly due to the complexity in separating the materials prior to recycling. Nina says with technology and infrastructure constantly improving, it’s essential to stay up-to-date with what needs to go in what bin in your local area.
“Accepted items and recycling laws do change and are different from council to council, so it’s important residents check with their local council for the correct information.”
A CHALLENGING WASTE STREAM
Nina says that during processing, Materials Recovery Facilities can experience difficulty in discerning which materials are paper and which are flexible plastics. As a result, flexible plastics can get caught in mechanical sorting machinery. For this reason, plastic bags and flexible plastic packaging have to be separated and placed into a plastic bag, before being recycled.
Recycling flexible plastics have been previously recognised by Victorian statutory authority Sustainability Victoria. Their 2014 fact sheet notes that plastic products can be broadly grouped as either flexible or rigid. Most flexible plastics are thermoplastics, which are more difficult to recycle due to their polymer structure which is degraded by reprocessing. It means the reprocessed product can often be of lower value than the original.
The report argues the shift towards lighter weight flexible pouches and sachets in the manufacturing of products such as detergents and sauces is also reducing the recyclability of these products and adding to overall waste.
Overall, the market risks range from contamination to the expensive cost of collection and processing, as well as a lack of effective processing options. The report argues the price of collection and processing is considered high against the value of the end product, while current technologies limit processing back to pellets for use in extrusion or expanded products. It notes the rising cost of landfill has resulted in a decision by SKM Recycling to recover the plastics, which began in 2012, with a 20-week trial across 900 households in the City of Darebin in Melbourne’s north.
PLASTIC RECYCLING IN ACTION
To get the project up and running, the Metro Fund provided financial support to the councils of Boroondara, Nillimbik Shire, Cardinia Shire and Hobsons Bay. Cardinia, Hobsons Bay and Nillumbik launched the project in November 2016, while Boroondara launched in February 2017 once the council election process was complete.
Boroondara’s recently retired Coordinator Waste Management, Sam Di Giovanni, tells Waste Management Review that one of the key factors in getting households to participate was the development of tailored household packs. Each pack included a resident letter with instructions on how to dispose of and separate their plastics, along with 10 plastic bags to help them get started.
“The committee, which included representatives from the four participating councils, spent extensive time drafting materials to ensure residents understood what they could and couldn’t recycle,” he says.
The success of the household packs were highlighted in a June audit by MWRRG. The bags outlined which flexible plastics could be collected along with a list of accepted materials on them, which was found to result in a low contamination rate of less than one per cent and boost resident participation.
MWRRG’s survey of 400 residents across the four councils found 85 per cent of residents said the household information pack was “very important” to separating recycling from the general waste stream, with 73 per cent of residents informed of the changes through the pack.
In addition, Boroondara City Council also ran a strong campaign in local media and social media. More than 100,000 residents were found to be using the service, representing 25 per cent of the sample size.
Sam says that due to fortnightly collections, the audit may have been done on a slow week for waste. He estimates that the participation rate could have been close to 60 per cent.
Sam says that while momentum for more flexible plastics programs is building slowly, there is great potential for these programs to expand.
Flexible plastics have been a problem in the recycling stream for a long period amount of time and continue to end up in recycling bins as some residents don’t understand their council’s set-up.
“The material that’s been sorted at this stage has been aggregated. There are markets for the sale of the materials within Australia and overseas,” he says.
“There’s a lot of interest from other councils, but there’s a lot more work to be done in getting more recyclers on board.”
As Sam has retired from the council, he says Boroondara City Council will continue its flexible plastics program well into the future.
“I’m a strong believer in education. Most of the residents have embraced it with open arms. The feedback has been phenomenal,” he says.
“It is a logical course of action to try and recover this valuable material – it’s a resource, not a waste.”