Balancing the good and the bad of plastics

Balancing the good and the bad of plastics

There is a raft of potential changes and interventions that can be made to better position plastics as the remarkable material that it is, writes Matt Genever, Director Resource Recovery, Sustainability Victoria.

I recall not too long ago seeing a 1950s TV advertisement from the United States promoting the virtues of disposable plastics. A typical American family seated around the dinner table, enjoying a meal on plastic tableware – off the plaid orange and brown tablecloth (classic 50s!) – and sweeping the whole lot into the bin when they’re done…plates, bowls, knives, forks…all of it.  Selling the dream of a “hassle-free” life.

Thankfully things have changed, somewhat, since then. We saw the first global plastic waste revolution in the 80s – then in the 90s, with the move away from traditional glass packaging spurring the creation of the first kerbside recycling programs. More recently, the focus has been on the significant impact of poorly managed plastic entering our marine environment and the accumulation of microplastics.   

It is fair to say that the balance isn’t quite right yet. This useful, flexible, malleable and now ubiquitous material can play an infinitely useful role in our world, from lightweight prosthetic limbs to 3D models printed seemingly from mid-air. On the flipside, its use has also become a pervasive vehicle to feed our throwaway culture.

In Australia, we generate around 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, that’s around 100 kilograms of plastic waste for every person in the country. Despite the options for reuse and recycling, almost 2.2 million tonnes (87 per cent) are sent to landfill (National Waste Report 2018). However, recently shoots of new growth have emerged, signalling a dramatic change in the way we use, recover and, ultimately recycle plastic globally.

There is a raft of potential changes and interventions that can be made to better position plastics as the remarkable material that it is.

Demand and supply both need a kick start

There has been a good deal of talk on the role of government procurement in stimulating growth in the recycling sector, and rightly so. This is a fundamental step we need to get right in order to grow a healthy recycling ecosystem.

One of the things that strikes me is the fragmented nature of our current secondary manufacturing market for recyclables. On one side, there are materials that have well developed markets that need little or no intervention at all – like the use of recycled aggregates in roadbase and other civil construction. On the other side, there are markets that, even if government sent a strong procurement signal, would not necessarily be ready to respond immediately.

Plastic is a great example of this. The emerging opportunities are endless, from compressed plastic railway sleepers to companies like Advanced Circular Polymers who are producing food-grade recycled rPET and rHDPE. But in reality, there are only a handful of companies currently producing domestic, market-ready recycled products at scale in Australia.

So, it is important for government and industry to work together to make sure that the supply side is getting the support it needs to scale up as the demand grows through procurement mechanisms.

Industry has the momentum in its supply chain

One of the key factors that helped the United Kingdom to turn around its recycling system was a shift in the supply chain.

Specifically, the major supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s moved to control more of the waste and recycling flows in and out of their businesses, in some cases becoming quasi-recyclers in their own right.

In recent months, reflecting on the meetings I’ve had around investment in plastic recycling, it’s encouraging to see how many of these are from the packaging industry and food and beverage supply chain itself rather than from traditional recycling businesses. The convergence of public attitude toward plastic, new national packaging targets and the diminishing export market for mixed plastics is generating huge momentum.

You can’t spell circular economy without “jobs”

It is equal parts frustrating and astonishing that collectively we have not made a stronger link between recycling and the creation of new “advanced manufacturing” jobs in Australia. With a minimum wage of almost $19 and hour and wholesale energy prices sitting around 300 per cent higher than the US, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be a country that goes back to low margin mass-producing widgets. There is a huge opportunity for high-margin, bespoke plastic products to be made locally from recycled materials and exported internationally.

In its Advanced Manufacturing Roadmap, CSIRO notes that Australia could position itself as a sustainable manufacturing hub, focusing on high-value advanced materials and applications. At the core of these materials and products will be polymers, both natural and synthetic.  The options are there for us to either feed from energy-intensive virgin materials or plug in directly from a well-developed, domestic Australia recycling sector.

This paradigm isn’t new. Ten years ago, it was concrete. Five years ago, it was glass. We’ve built businesses, infrastructure and end-uses for these materials and we’ll do the same for plastics.

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