Packaging MFA reveals recycling challenges and opportunities

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) this week launched a Packaging Materials Flow Analysis (MFA), a new report developed in partnership with the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) mapping the current state of post-consumer packaging in Australia.

Commissioned on behalf of APCO, the report highlights a compelling need to improve packaging recovery and recycling rates across all material streams.

In 2017/18 Australians generated an estimated 4.4 million tonnes of total packaging waste, with 68 per cent of this collected, and 56 per cent of the collection total recovered by recycling efforts. This ranged from 32 per cent for plastics and up to 72 per cent for paper streams – highlighting a significant opportunity to improve waste management practices to achieve higher recovery rates.

Of the 4.4 million tonnes, the report shows 44 per cent was landfilled, 33 per cent went to local secondary material utilisation, 19 per cent exported, four per cent stockpiled and more than 0.5 per cent to energy recovery.

The MFA Report is one of several APCO initiatives being conducted during the foundation phase of the targets (2019-2020) – the groundwork stage that focuses on research, engaging stakeholders and setting baselines and frameworks.

APCO CEO Brooke Donnelly said that to achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets, we need to first understand the journey materials take along the entire supply chain and establish a baseline of data to measure change and interventions. She said that the MFA is first step in this process.

As a critical first step in achieving the 2025 national packaging targets for all material to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, the report outlines the current journey of Australia’s packaging waste from bin to landfill or reprocessing, identifies significant data and infrastructure challenges in the system and models five potential solutions for the future.

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One of the challenges is the major losses to landfill to recoverable materials occurring before waste is collected for sorting at materials recycling facilitates (MRFs) or container deposit scheme collections. The report attributes this to incorrect disposal of packaging wastes by households and businesses.

“Better management of this waste at the source, through improved source separation, is important. Critically, consumer education and awareness raising around appropriate disposal and collection channels, as well as smarter design of packaging for recycling, are also key strategies. These are already supported by the new Australasian Recycling label (ARL) and the Packaging Recyclability Evaluation Portal (PREP),” the report says.

Additionally, the report shows the opportunity to increase sorting efficiency by diverting materials, especially glass, from kerbside to the expanding container deposit scheme collections. It finds better sorting equipment will also support improvements in contaminant removal. The report shows there are about 100 MRFs in operation across Australia, with throughput capacities ranging from 5000 to 250,000 tonnes per annum. Around 45 per cent of the total packaging waste stream for 2017/17 gets directed to MRFs and their capabilities for efficiently sorting co-mingled and highly contaminated waste is indicated to be a major factor limiting packaging sorting efficiency in Australia.

“Upgrading existing MRF capabilities is difficult and expensive owing to market uncertainties (e.g., caused by Chinese waste import restrictions), making the case for improving up-stream source separation and collection stronger,” the report says.

Future modelling shows potential to achieve an overall packaging waste recovery rate of 77 per cent, assuming a range of strategies are adopted to address losses across the whole chain, from collection to processing.

With glass packaging, the estimated recovery rate is just over 50 per cent and 23 per cent of glass waste disposed to the residual stream. About 80,000 tonnes of glass is collected and sorted through container deposit collection systems.

The investigation in particular highlights the importance of improving source separation, particularly for plastics to address residuals, a priority for paper in reducing contamination (embedded glass fines) that could be achieved with separated paper or glass separation and diverting glass to CDS to improve the quality of the stream to be suitable for bottle to bottle recycling.

Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS) Research Director and co-author of the report Dr Nick Florin said that there is great potential to step-up material recovery from the current overall recovery rate of 56 per cent and at the same time increase demand for recycled materials to drive the transition to a circular economy for packaging.

“APCO, as the central product stewardship organisation, is well placed to support this coordinated transition that involves cooperation between consumers, designers, recyclers and packaging manufactures,” Dr Florin said.

The MFA also highlighted significant data and infrastructure gaps that need to be addressed before the 2025 targets can be achieved. These findings will be used to inform additional packaging and recycling research to develop a complete picture of the current system.

Ms Donnelly said we can’t implement effective and meaningful changes to the system if we don’t first have a complete and accurate picture.

“A collaborative approach will be critical to building this. The challenge ahead of us requires a complete transformation of the current system. Over the next 12 months, APCO will be leading an ambitious agenda of projects to build on the findings of the MFA. We look forward to working closely with all stakeholders as we transition to a circular model for packaging in Australia,” she said.

Throughout 2018 APCO also facilitated a series of five, year-long industry working groups attended by more than 80 industry members from across the value chain and government to explore solutions to problematic packaging types (including glass, polymer coated paperboard (PCPB), soft plastics, biodegradable and compostable packaging, and expanded polystyrene).

In 2019, APCO will be co-ordinating 22 new projects to build on the findings of the MFA and the 2018 working groups. These will include further detailed research into packaging consumption and recycling to establish baselines for the 2025 targets, developing targeted design resources to improve packaging recyclability, and developing strategies to address problematic packaging, including plastics.

To read the full APCO Packaging Material Flow Analysis 2018, visit the APCO website.

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A hierarchy of strategies to avoid waste to landfill

A person recycling correctly from home

A balanced approach to recycling is needed in order to reduce the amount of goods going to landfill, a Sydney academic believes.

Writing in The Conversation, Jenni Downes, Research Consultant at the Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney wrote that total household waste is increasing and kerbside recycling is low by global standards.

“At first glance, Australians appear to be good recyclers: ABS figures report that in 2012 about 94 per cent of households participated in some way in kerbside recycling,” Ms Downes wrote.

“State waste authorities also report a consistent increase in the volume of materials recovered for recycling.”

However, Ms Downes argued the figures did not justify complacency, as total household waste is increasing and the kerbside recycling rate  – which measures the amount of materials collected for recycling as a percentage of the total waste generated – is relatively low by global standards, but growing slowly.

“The recycling rate increased from 45 per cent in 2007 to 51 per cent in 2011, just creeping above the average of 50 per cent across comparable countries.”

She wrote that one reason kerbside recycling isn’t higher is because people find the rules confusing, citing a Planet Ark survey which found 48 per cent of Australians struggled to figure out what can and can’t be recycled, incorrectly identifying recyclable materials.

“Much of this is likely due to the variation in rules in different places, and the extent to which recycling has changed in the 35 years since it began in Australia,” she wrote.

But councils are moving towards greater consistency, she wrote, with more than 80 per cent of people able to place the same things in their recycling bins.

Furthermore, she argued recycling needs to be considered amongst a hierarchy of other ways of reducing waste to landfill, in order of; avoiding/reducing, reusing, recycling, recovering and disposing.

“Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and getting it right is crucial. But it’s also important for recycling to take its place alongside waste-avoidance actions for a more sustainable lifestyle.”