It’s time to act on plastics: NWRIC

It’s time to act on plastics: NWRIC

A landfill levy discount for residuals would reduce stockpiles and reinvigorate recycling, writes Alex Serpo, Secretary of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.

On 14 February, the Victorian EPA issued a notice to a long-standing recycling provider to stop accepting material at two of the essential sites serving Melbourne – Maffra Street, Coolaroo and Gilbertson Road, Laverton North. This was due to stockpiles at the site being deemed by the EPA to be a fire risk.

At the time of writing on 1 March, it is understood that 30 Victorian councils are still struggling to find providers to process their kerbside recycling. 

China first notified the World Trade Organization 18 months ago of its plan to ban imports of 24 scrap types, a move mostly targeting contaminated mixed plastics. The program known as the National Sword continues to send shockwaves around the world.

Research for the Federal Government by Blue Environment last year estimated that National Sword has left at least 125,000 tonnes of mixed plastic stranded in Australia with no end market. This policy change by China continues to affect all states, with Victoria the most exposed as they collect and sort 50 per cent of the affected plastics.

However, the plastics challenge doesn’t stop here. In 2005, a landmark study in the journal Science estimated that eight million tonnes of plastics are entering the world’s oceans each year. In this context, the South Australian Government is currently consulting on a proposed ban of various single-use plastic products. 

The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) wrote in support of these proposed bans. This is because some single-use plastic  products are difficult to recycle, contaminate kerbside recycling plus organics processing and harm the environment.

THE PROBLEM FOR RECYCLERS

The plastics recycling dilemma is hurting kerbside recycling facilities in many ways. Outside of glass, the biggest challenge is finding new markets for mixed plastics. Currently, production drastically outstrips demand – as countries beyond China, including Thailand and Vietnam, are also banning the import of these materials.

However, kerbside recycling contracts assume mixed plastics are saleable, recycled commodities. This systemic failure has created a major unfunded liability which has resulted in excessive stockpiling. This not only increases the fire risk for these sites, but could also be considered as above ground landfill and is poor practice. 

Scrap recyclers have been facing similar financial challenges due to the growing use of plastics in cars, white goods and appliances. Many of these plastics are not recyclable, due to a lack of design for recycling features, creating a processing residue known as “shredder floc”; a mixture of plastics and other contaminants.

As there is no market for shredder floc, the material is sent to landfill, which further increases processing costs for scrap recyclers. To enable Australian scrap recyclers to stay competitive in a global market, NSW and SA currently provide a 50 per cent discount on the landfill levy. Queensland and Western Australia are also wisely considering the same approach. The NWRIC supports this approach being applied nationally, as there is no product stewardship scheme to fund these costs.

THREE STEPS TO REINVIGORATE RECYCLING 

The NWRIC’s first recommended step is to provide a landfill levy discount to materials recovery facilities (MRFs) for unsaleable mixed plastics, for example, recycling residuals. According to 2011 NSW EPA Waste Audits 2011, plastics are less than 10 per cent by weight of materials coming through kerbside recycling. This will enable MRFs to reduce stockpiles, free up space and allow their resources to focus on improving the recovery of higher value plastics (and other materials) where there are viable markets. 

This is also something that state governments can implement relatively quickly at no additional cost. It is critical that we do not allow a relatively small amount of unsaleable plastics to constrain an otherwise healthy recycling systems which is recovering higher value plastics, paper, glass and metals. The loss of revenue to state governments and cost to the community would be minimal.

Secondly, as covered in NWRIC’s response to the National Waste Policy discussion paper last October,  federal, state and local governments Australia-wide need to fast-track the uptake of mixed plastics and glass into infrastructure such as roads and other civil works. It is possible and is starting to happen now in Victoria, as illustrated by the NWRIC member, the Alex Fraser Group.

Thirdly, banning or replacing single-use plastic products/packaging with products/materials that are reusable, recyclable or compostable is an important step forward. In its submission to the National Waste Policy, the NWRIC advocated this measure as a means of cleaning up kerbside recycling and improving its viability. 

These three steps provide governments with affordable, practical and relatively simple adjustments that can reinvigorate the recycling industry, and put it back on a sustainable footing, with minimal cost to the community.

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