Craig Reucassel talks coffee cups, waste to energy

Waste Management Review Editor Toli Papadopoulos speaks to the War on Waste’s Craig Reucassel about the show’s success and portrayal of issues such as coffee cup waste.

The name Craig Reucassel was once synonymous with droll satire.

Many viewers would recall the Chaser’s War on Everything in the mid noughties – a satirical comedy known for taking the mickey out of political and social issues with hilarious stunts.  

From chasing former Prime Minister John Howard down on his morning stroll for a hug to visiting a local shopping centre in a bid to raise money for the “Kerry Packer Memorial Fund” – Craig’s comedic stylings left a lasting impact on viewers.

In 2017, Craig became recognised for an issue still, at times, as politically motivated as his stunts – waste.

The War on Waste last year garnered 4.3 million viewers across its three episodes, tackling issues such as single-use plastic bags, the lack of recyclability of coffee cups, supermarket fruit and vegetable cosmetic standards and consumers’ penchant for fast fashion.

The popularity of the program inspired a second season which aired earlier this year, this time looking at onshore processing of e-waste, the scale of food waste going to landfill and the impact of single-use plastics in the litter stream. A separate episode of Foreign Correspondent, hosted by Craig, also tackled Sweden’s use of waste to energy (WtE), questioning whether its local waste industry was indeed recycling most of Sweden’s waste or incinerating it.

Waste Management Review received the opportunity to speak with Craig Reucassel in September about the success of the War on Waste and its portrayal of issues such as coffee cups, food waste and the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent on WtE. 

When Craig talks about the success of the War on Waste, he cites the style of the series as a key factor.

“I think maybe doing a show that had a different tone about it probably got it to a different audience. It got it to younger people and became more of a family viewing show so that helped make it a topic of conversation,” Craig says. 

Craig says that having a national broadcaster on the series helped its success. The program was based on a British program – Hugh’s War on Waste. He says that he has learnt a lot on the journey since then and it is “surprisingly a fascinating area”. 

In season two, Craig says China’s ban on waste imports also made the series topical.

In season one, Craig caught the attention of onlookers when he rolled a giant ball of plastic bags up the stairs of the Victorian Parliament House in order to get the attention of the premier. Months later, we saw the Victorian Government move to ban single-use plastic bags. 

To draw attention to the lack of recyclable coffee cups, Craig rode around on the streets of Melbourne on a decorated coffee cup tram filled with 50,000 disposable coffee cups echoing “BYO coffee cup”. Months after the program, the not-for-profit program Responsible Cafes went from 400 sign ups to 1400 and reusable cup brand Keep Cup doubled its sales. 

“I think stunts help a little bit, they help getting attention to the show. For instance, the coffee cup stunt, I know that was seen by a lot of people on Facebook who didn’t necessarily see the rest of the show, so there is that element to it,” Craig says.

“I think one of the things we really tried to do is focus not just on the problem and not just on the policy response, which is important, but also on what you could do yourself. I think that helps, because the reality is if you just rely on the policy response it tends to be very slow and frustrating.” 

One of the things Craig says was most surprising in doing the show was the scale of waste on his visit to a banana farm, which revealed that millions of edible bananas were thrown away by farmers for not fitting the standards set by the supermarkets. 

After piling up 6000 kilograms of fashion waste in Sydney’s Martin Place to show this is thrown out in Australia in ten minutes, Craig says that this was quite surprising to him, but concedes it is probably because he is “less engaged” with fashion generally.

COFFEE CUP RECYCLING

Craig says that in terms of individual action, the coffee cup portrayal on the show saw a lot of change. However, he says there was likely a bigger change on the plastic bag end due to the corporate decision making of supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths. 

On the program, one guest explained that a coffee cup was not recyclable due to the polyethylene lining which prevents it from being recycled and explained that compostable cups also faced the same problem. Unless taken to a composting facility, the guest said they ended up in landfill. Speaking to Waste Management Review, Craig was asked why he chose to take the angle that coffee cups were not recyclable and explained his perspective in further detail.

“The problem is that you need a separate stream of compostable-only cups and they have to be not going to backyard composting they have to be going to commercial composting sites,” Craig says. 

“That wasn’t happen [sic] and it’s still not happening to a large extent now. I’ve been at places where you have commercial composting and they don’t want that stuff to end up [there]. Some will accept it, some won’t. So to say that that was being recycled was not true at all.”

According to Biopak Managing Director Gary Smith, recycling coffee cups is “almost impossible” currently.

“New recycling systems can possibly be introduced. However, this is unlikely as milk, sugar and coffee contamination will always contaminate paper recycling. This is in addition to the problems a traditional PE lining poses to recyclers. 

“What we need is a system that government, business and the home consumer can rely on where the products follow their normal waste passage and join a recycling system. My opinion is that this can only be composting,” Gary tells Waste Management Review. 

“Our form of recycling is composting, it’s nature’s way of recycling.”

He says that Biopak’s collection service currently reaches 1300 post codes in seven cities across Australia. To participate, cafes and restaurants can place their cups and food waste into their green bins by purchasing BioCup compostable cups from BioPak and using its compost collection service.

Brooke Donnelly, CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) says the recyclability of coffee cups is an issue APCO is working through in its working groups and Technical Advisory Committee. 

“It’s certainly an evolving space, as there are currently two initiatives in development – the Detmold RecycleMe program and the 7-Eleven Simply Cups programs – that are for the first time offering a real opportunity for a scalable, viable solution. 

“These schemes are in the early stages of development and/or implementation and we are excited to see how they will emerge in terms of long-term recycling outcomes and economic viability. It’s wonderful to see these great APCO Member initiatives out in the market place,” Brooke says. 

With many opinions on the matter, Waste Management Review will continue to investigate this topic further in an upcoming issue. 

INCINERATION

Turning to WtE, a Foreign Correspondent episode hosted by Craig Reucassel looked at whether Sweden was recycling most of its waste or instead opting for incineration. While there was a specific focus on incineration, the program did not touch upon the other forms of WtE in great detail and how they form part of a waste hierarchy, including refuse-derived fuel and anaerobic digestion. 

The program comes amid discussion as to whether WtE could form part of the solution to the issues facing Australia’s recycling market post-National Sword. Following a meeting of environment ministers in April, then Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said he had asked the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to prioritise WtE, building on the $200 million already invested in this area.  

“Generating energy from waste that is unable to be recycled is common in other countries, particularly in Europe,” Mr Frydenberg said in April.

Craig notes that while he was not against WtE, he cautioned against it without investing further in recycling. He says that if all steps have been taken to capture value out of the materials than WtE could be better than landfill. 

When asked about WtE being part of the solution for residual waste, Craig questioned what the definition of residual waste is.

“If you were to say OK currently in Australia the market because of China the market for paper has fallen over and a lot of plastics other than PET has fallen over, does that mean you’re saying residual waste means we should burn all polypropylene products, all paper that there’s not a current market? Or does it mean you need to invest in improving your recycling industry?”

Similarly on questions of whether there should be more investment in recycling, Craig said: 

“What I am saying is if you’re only going to pump money into WtE and not put money into fixing the recycling thing then, by a [sic] very nature, what is defined as residual waste is going to be a lot of plastic, which is essentially a fossil fuel.”’

Federal Government Environment Minister Melissa Price was contacted for comment on this issue but did not respond on deadline.

However, despite many of the issues left hanging in the balance, Craig is hopeful more action will emerge out of season two. The second season had an entire episode dedicated to the impact of single-use plastics in the litter stream, including straws. 

He cites the decision by Sydney Opera House on-site restaurants owned by Solotel to ban plastic straws by August 1 as a step in the right direction, with an announcement made in the same week as the episode. McDonald’s Australia also announced this year it will phase out existing plastics straws from its 970 restaurants around the country by 2020. 

It is currently working with local suppliers to find viable alternatives and started a trial of paper straws in two restaurants in August, but Craig says he will “await cautiously and see what happens there”. 

So what specific action does Craig hope War on Waste season two gets the most movement on? Craig says he hopes to see Australia moves towards not burying food waste. 

“There are certainly a number of councils looking at it (food and garden organics collection) and I think the other thing we really need to do is lead to a better economy for recycled products in Australia.”

On questions of whether a season three is planned, Craig says at the moment it’s “just processes”, leaving mystery in the air on the potential topics he’d like to tackle next.  

“There are topics that we haven’t got to yet. The team will sit down together and try and work out if there’s enough good stories to tell.” 

“We might get another War on Waste, we’ll see.”

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