What South Australia can teach us

The South Australian Government implemented its container deposit legislation 40 years ago. Now that other states are following suit, what lessons can be learnt from SA?

In 1977, the South Australian Government implemented a scheme with impacts that are still being felt today. The container deposit legislation (CDL) began as a way to deal with single-use containers littering streets and drains.

The world has changed since then, but South Australia adapted and has worked with both the beverage and waste industries to not get left behind. Products changed and the packages they came in have too. Reusable glass bottles have become rarer and mixed plastics are now the norm. Container design also changed, with plastic mixes becoming more common – a drink bottle could be made of one plastic, the lid another and the label another variety.

As packaging evolved, so did the legislation, keeping up with the changes in consumer behaviour. Because the CDL was able to change as the industries did, it was able to adapt to new introductions as they happened.

In 2003, the SA Government extended the legislation to keep up with the changing packaging designs. It now covers fruit juice, non-carbonated soft drinks and flavoured milk containers.

Now in 2018, the CDL program is still going strong. The return rate on drink containers is reaching 80 per cent. Since 2005, more than six billion containers have been diverted from landfill and returned for recycling.

The CDL in SA has helped to instil positive behavioural change when it comes to recycling. Beverage containers now only make up 2.9 per cent of litter items. In comparison, Clean Up Australia’s 2017 Rubbish Report found that in Victoria, Tasmania, and Western Australia, the percentage of beverage containers ranged from 14 to 26 per cent.

The CDL is based around rewarding consumers for recycling by providing them with a financial incentive. When a drink container is purchased in SA, consumers are encouraged to visit a local depot to drop it off. Originally, the refund was five cents, but was changed to 10 cents in 2008 to encourage more South Australians to get involved.

Ten cents can add up fast and organisations began jumping on board to collect litter from community members to fundraise money. These could be a local sporting club, a charity, school or a scout group, whose members donate their cans to the organisation that are then recycled by them to help raise funds. Over 2016-2017, almost $60 million was returned back into the community.

It still remains popular in the state, with 98 per cent of South Australians supporting the program, according to the CDL Awareness & Support Research Report, prepared for the South Australian Environment Protection Authority (SA EPA). It was even listed as a state heritage icon in 2006 as improving the quality of life in SA.

John Phillips, Executive Director of Keep South Australia Beautiful (KESAB) believes that the legislation has helped South Australians reduce litter and encourage recycling.

“Ultimately, while it was originally a way to encourage people to think about their litter, it has really helped the community. Depots have not only encouraged the resource recovery of containers, but have become a place where people can easily recycle materials like cardboard, scrap metal, or even car batteries.”

KESAB began 50 years ago as a litter reduction campaign and has since evolved into a non-governmental organisation that works with its stakeholders to reduce litter. It works with governments, recycling companies and depots and schools to help educate people on sustainability.

John believes the CDL helped encourage recycling in SA.

What helps the CDL shine is the fact that it can encourage everyone to pitch in and clean up the streets, not just the original consumer.

“If we look closely, there are two segments that come into play,” says John. “You have the types of consumers who will hold on to containers to give it in for recycling later at a depot or community centre, and the consumers that buy a drink, finish it, then throw it out the window as litter. Even if they do that, it will most likely get picked up by someone who can hand it in later for cash.”

This kind of recycling is important, not only for resource collection, but also because cleaning up litter can be costly.

According to the Victorian Litter Action Alliance, maintenance for litter bins, traps and clean-up costs just under $28 million. Roadside litter and dumped rubbish ends up costing Victorian councils nearly $22,000 a day to keep the street clean.

The CDL also makes a significant impact for people in lower socio-economic areas.

It covers drink containers easily available outside the home, specifically lunchtime beverages.

If the 10 cent refund was expanded to other recyclables like wine bottles, restaurants and hotels could also be encouraged to increase how much they recycle, John says.

Similarly, the legislation could be expanded to non-drink related containers that are recyclable.

“If we look at all the plastics we use in the kitchen or bathroom, there’s a lot that could be included, like shampoo bottles. These are all ways we can minimise the amount of waste that goes to landfill and have been proven before to have an extensive impact across the state.”

A spokesperson for the South Australian Environment Protection Authority said the SA Government is not currently considering expanding the legislation to other beverages or packaged products.

“However, with any future legislation amendment proposals there will be an opportunity to consult with the community and industry on whether the scheme should be expanded,” the spokesperson said.

The impact of China’s waste restrictions has impacted Australian recyclers, according to John. The nation’s change in policy saw a crackdown on imports of 24 different types of solid waste from Japan, USA, Australia and other source countries. Because SA has a clean waste stream, partially due to its CDL, it has avoided a lot of the stress, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

“We need to be more innovative in looking after our waste and reduce the need to export it,” John says.

“We’re at a knife’s edge at the moment based on how we progress. Rapid change is needed to address issues like climate change and resource recovery, and at the moment in the waste management industry, we have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how we can perform.”

John believes that Australia is positioned perfectly to influence worldwide change.

“With our innovative minds, we could use this as an opportunity to set global standards and help influence some of our northern neighbours.”

NSW has recently begun its own recycling scheme similar to SA’s CDL. The Return and Earn scheme began in December of 2017, and has collected more than 100 million containers in the three months.

Return and Earn is based around a similar 10c refund on beverage containers, but also relies on a system of reverse vending machines as well as a number of automated and over the counter return depots.

John says that the differences between Sydney and Adelaide aren’t that great when it comes to recycling. People want to do the right thing, but infrastructure is important to make sure that happens.

“From the very beginning of the SA CDL, it was connected to the industry and a network of recyclers. Adjustments to the scheme have occurred, but it’s flowed on from there and remained solid.”

“NSW doesn’t have that luxury. In Sydney, the infrastructure needs to be built from the ground up. RVMs can be quite slow when attempting to recycle 200 to 300 items and all of a sudden you’ve got a queue a mile long. It’s important to make sure that they expand their local collection points, because RVMs are not the answer to everything,” John says.

A spokesperson from the NSW Environment Protection Authority said the NSW community has embraced the Return and Earn scheme, returning more than 100 million containers in just 10 weeks.

The SA implementation of container deposit legislation and similar projects globally were also explored to help inform the design of Return and Earn, according to the spokesperson.

Victoria is currently the only state that has not started or begun to plan implementation of CDL. QLD, WA, and ACT have schemes planned to begin in 2018 and 2019, with the NT introducing their own in 2012.

Lily D’Ambrosio, Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, says the State Government is “continuing to look at container deposit schemes in other jurisdictions to understand the benefits and costs of various models, and how they might work in Victoria”.

According to the Victorian Government, litter levels in the state have been decreasing for seven years in a row, including an eight per cent decrease in beverage container litter over the past year.

John says with the other states mounting pressure on the Victorian Government, it could only be a matter of time before it is available nationwide.

“Wheels will begin to turn once all states and territories have come on board. Common sense tells me that Victoria will be obliged to start one up to keep up with the rest of the country.”

Dr Philip Kwong, Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering, notes that on a recent trip to Melbourne, the aesthetics were vastly different, with much more visible litter in the streets.

“In South Australia, I don’t see any CDS-eligible cans lying around.

“In Melbourne, I could see a lot of these types of containers everywhere on the streets. I think it would be good to see [a CDS] implemented in Victoria, but there’s a lot of development that needs to occur. There needs to be super collectors, depots and co-operation with the drink manufacturers themselves,” he says.

Other countries around the world have much different recycling standards. Philip explains that in many countries the recycling culture is significantly different.

“In Europe, there is even a similar scheme for electronic waste. Certain items like phones and other mobile devices have 10, 20, or even $50 added onto their cost. When the device reaches the end of its lifespan, you’re able to hand it in and get that money back.

Philip Kwong, Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide, researches the environmental and energy sector.

“Japan in particular has a sophisticated household system. Each household has six different kinds of bins for different waste that need to be handled in certain ways. If you don’t flatten down your milk cartons when you put it in the bin, they will return it to you.”

According to Philip, the key to making sure these types of schemes succeed is education.

“We need to teach people the value of separating waste. Currently in Australia we put all our recyclables in the yellow recycling bin. With household recycling, there’s so much more that can be done to help avoid sending things to landfill.”

One major benefit of this type of source separation is that it makes waste management much easier in areas with a CDS.

Because a large percentage of recyclable waste is being returned for packaging, it means there is less of that within the household recycling bin. This is especially important when it comes to materials such as glass bottles.

“Glass containers in recycling bins can be an issue. Glass takes a certain amount of power to crush properly, meaning if there is a significant amount of glass being collected, it reduces the amount that can be moved in one load,” Philip says.

“By separating the sources, it lets you fit more waste into each truck before it fills up, saving a lot on time and resources.”

Philip says these types of schemes are a good start for Australia. He adds that schemes still mostly just target litter, but there is more that can be done to help with recycling.

“In order for this type of program to become successful around the country, and particularly in NSW, the government or relevant EPA needs to make sure the scheme is promoted actively and to educate people on how they can help.”