Packaging the new normal: APCO

With much debate surrounding how COVID-19 will shape Australia in the long-term, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation is exploring opportunities to accelerate sustainable packaging, writes CEO Brooke Donnelly.  

There has been much debate about how COVID-19 will shape our country in the long term.

For professionals in the packaging and resource recovery industries – one of the most persistent questions has been whether COVID-19 will accelerate or hinder efforts for packaging sustainability in Australia?

It’s a challenging question to unpack. We are after all in largely uncharted territory – professionally, economically and socially.

In the short term there have certainly been consequences. Under lockdown many consumers faced a greater reliance on single use products, while greater restrictions emerged around reusable packaging formats, most notably coffee cups.

Once the immediate risks are gone, it will be imperative that industry provides a united voice to discourage these from becoming long-term behavioural patterns.

For the recycling industry, lockdown conditions have also meant added stress to the kerbside system.

In May ACOR reported a 10 per cent growth in householder kerbside recycling, as well as unprecedented levels of contamination in some locations, especially from soft plastics.

Meanwhile for the restaurants and food industry, many businesses have been required to navigate takeaway packaging for the first time.

For the team at the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) lockdown has meant a period of adaptation. Practically there have been delays, particularly for our projects requiring data collection and trials.

Likewise, our members have been forced to navigate new challenges. With many industries across Australia adversely affected, or even shut down due to COVID 19, it has been a timely reminder of the essential role packaging plays in the Australian economy.

Australian manufacturers produce more than 3.3 million tonnes of packaging annually, or around 61 per cent of all packaging used in Australia.

As well as being a dynamic and thriving local manufacturing industry in its own right, the packaging industry plays a vital role underpinning many other Australian businesses delivering essential products.

Yet despite these challenges, progress is continuing at a remarkable rate. At APCO we launched Our Packaging Future, the strategic roadmap for delivering the 2025 Targets, and Considerations for Compostable Plastic Packaging, a new report developed in partnership with ABA and AORA.

We have also facilitated 12 working and advisory group meetings, bringing together representatives from the complete packaging value chain.

Our events program is one of APCO’s most important industry engagement tools, so we were particularly proud of the decision to move these events to a weekly webinar format.

These sessions cover all things sustainability and give our community a regular opportunity to stay in touch, continue learning and keep collaborating. Switching to an online platform has allowed us to reach approximately two thousand participants – a far greater and more geographically diverse group than before.

These are challenging times, however, I think we can all agree that technology has proven functional, resilient and can open our minds to new ways of doing business as we transition to the new normal. The sessions are open to everyone and registrations are available on the APCO website.

It has also been inspiring to see some Members rise to the challenge of COVID in creative and inspiring ways.

Packaging manufacturer Detmold has switched its manufacturing operations to the production of hand sanitiser and surgical face masks for front-line health workers.

Pact Group has also demonstrated remarkable agility and converted production lines at three of its Sydney plants to produce hand sanitiser for the first time. The team is producing around two million units of sanitiser per month, with 95 per cent sold in Australia.

Meanwhile, APCO member THE ICONIC has maintained a strong focus on its sustainability goals, with the launch of its 100 per cent recycled content delivery satchels in May.

The move is a major milestone for the brand’s target for 100 per cent recycled content in all shipping packaging by 2022, and a demonstration of clear leadership in the online retail space.

As we all prepare to re-enter the new ‘normal’ world of work (whatever version of normal that may be), it has been inspiring to see people ask what can we learn from this time, and how can this challenge be embraced as an opportunity?

Looking ahead, many businesses facing financial strain will need to find operational efficiencies.

Waste – the process of creating and then sending something to landfill – is fundamentally a business inefficiency. By changing our mindset to view waste as a strategic and operational flaw, circular design could provide a powerful opportunity for businesses to financially navigate this challenging time.

Our interconnected, globalised society is one of the unique challenges of managing COVID-19. The pandemic has demonstrated the deeply interdependent relationships of our economy, society, and the environment.

As governments and businesses look to rebuild, there are powerful insights to be taken about how deeply connected and systemic our solution to Australia’s waste and recovery challenges needs to be.

Finally, while it’s a devastating example, the pandemic has illustrated the potential of collective action and how powerfully Australians can come together to address a challenge. So let’s harness that approach for building a sustainable future for Australia.

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Paving our recycled future: ARRB

The road construction industry can contribute to the circular economy by creating sustainable roads for a sustainable society, writes Melissa Lyons, Senior Professional Leader, the Australian Road Research Board.

Sustainability, recycling, circular economy – these are the current buzz words in the road construction industry.

The road construction industry is under pressure to help solve Australia’s recycling crisis. The make-up of roads lends itself well to the incorporation of recycled materials. 

However, this is not as simple as replacing raw road construction materials with recycled materials such as glass, plastic or rubber. The right approach must be taken.

We need to think about how we can incorporate recycled materials into our roads in way that will make the road more sustainable in the long term, rather than a way to help solve the recycled material stockpile issues we have now.

Without the right research, development and planning, we risk creating a new waste stream in years to come if we can’t reclaim the road.

Roads play an important role in our transport system. They keep our economy moving. We need to ensure we are not de-valuing or degrading them. Roads are not ‘just’ asphalt, they are valuable assets that need to meet certain requirements for our society to function.

The road construction industry should be designing and constructing our roads with the confidence that they will meet or exceed current standards. Society still expect our roads to perform well, if not better, especially as technology progresses.

However, these roads also need to be sustainable in order to support a more sustainable society.

Society is heavily influenced by marketing and it is also influencing the way our industry is embracing sustainability. It is important that the road construction industry support the basic principles of the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle.

We need to be careful to not give society justification to keep generating recycled waste.

Standard asphalt is 100 per cent reusable as Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement (RAP). The use (and re-use) of RAP reduces the amount of virgin materials used in maintenance, rehabilitation or new construction of asphalt and pavements.

This means valuable materials are used over and over again and do not end up in landfill, directly contributing to a circular economy.

There are many aspects to consider across the pavement lifecycle. There are many innovative products using recycled materials on the market and laboratory tests that show positive performance results.

However, many of these products have not considered the full cradle-to-grave lifecycle of the recycled materials and the road.  Recycled materials in some cases may increase the performance of the road, but it may also change how it is processed and manufactured and how we can reuse it.

Therefore, we need to make sure we think about how our current processes and equipment will need to be updated to be compatible with the new products we are creating.

There may be trade-offs and risks with adding new recycled materials. There are costs and benefits of each material, use and design.

For some recycled materials there may be more valuable and lower risk road infrastructure applications that can use more recycled materials e.g. bike paths or roadside furniture.

Full life-cycle assessments of road technology options can assist in the best technology selection for the right situation.

For the road construction industry to contribute to a circular economy, we need to make a conscious effort to not just offer short term solutions to our recycling crisis.

When we incorporate recycled materials into our roads and road infrastructure, a rigorous research and development process should be undertaken. 

Learnings from international uses, laboratory testing and local demonstration trials with performance monitoring are all part of this.

ARRB are working with state road agencies, local government and bodies such as Sustainability Victoria and Tyre Stewardship Australia, undertaking trials and developing standards and guidelines to ensure the smart implementation of recycled materials.

Interested in finding out more about this work and its potential application, or customisation to your needs? Contact ARRB at

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Focusing on the future through positive reform

In response to the NSW Government’s issue paper Cleaning Up Our Act, a number of priority steps have been identified, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.

The NSW Government’s issue paper Cleaning Up Our Act: The Future of Waste and Resource Recovery outlines the current challenges facing the waste system and proposes a vision for the future NSW circular economy including options for reform.   

What is pleasing about the paper is that the NSW Government clearly recognises the current waste and resource recovery system is inadequate to meet the state’s growing needs, let alone the transition to a circular economy.

Business as usual won’t fix it, and if we fail to act now to disrupt this trend, the NSW waste system may not be able to cope.

From an infrastructure perspective, the nuts and bolts of the waste system, the issues paper clearly recognises the system’s current limitations and gaps.

From collection challenges and the lack of capacity to process, recover and treat waste, to the limited resilience in the system to ensure service continuity and reliability.

It also acknowledges the essential nature of waste and recycling infrastructure, the workforce supporting it, and community well-being.

Importantly, the government’s vision gives more weight to waste avoidance and creating markets. The NWRIC welcomes this, and it is consistent with the current National Waste Policy. 

It also clearly acknowledges that responsibility for waste isn’t just with those who collect, recycle and dispose of waste or the community.

More so, it identifies that those enterprises that make, sell and construct are key players who must adopt a stronger sense of environmental responsibility for their products across the entire supply chain and material lifecycle.

The paper also places explicit emphasis on waste being seen as a resource that should positively contribute to a sustainable future.

This shift reflects the principles of a circular economy, building social, environmental and economic capital, as opposed to simply reducing environmental harm.

The options proposed in the issues paper are comprehensive and far-reaching, reflecting complex interrelationships and the need for system-wide reform that meets growing public expectations.

The challenge now is to prioritise these options, ensuring an implementation-oriented plan that can deliver measurable outcomes over the next five years from 2021.

Considering our current status, we need to look to the future and design a process that can navigate a clear pathway to change and reform.

In its response to the issues paper, the NWRIC identified a number of priority steps to a more sustainable, affordable and reliable waste and recycling sector.

From a material perspective, priority should initially be given to organics, plastics and glass.

Specifically, this means diverting organics from landfill and increasing the recovery of plastics and glass. This will require system-wide changes and collaboration with other jurisdictions.

Creating markets for recovered materials is also key to making services affordable and sustainable.

The challenge here is not only to address the current quality and supply issues, but more importantly to enable recovered plastics and glass to effectively compete with virgin materials as an affordable alternative.

Several reforms are required to achieve this price parity. Improved source separation at the point of collection, increasing processing capacity, and agreed minimum recovered resource supply specifications will go a long way.

But most importantly, we need to require those who make, sell and construct to use more recovered materials in their packaging, products and infrastructure.

This can initially be driven by taking a stronger product stewardship approach and mandating minimum recycled content in plastic containers.

Requiring all government funded infrastructure projects to demonstrate how they will optimise their use of recycled materials and report on the type and volume of recycled materials and products used, will also be essential.

To encourage private sector investment and technological innovation, the government must provide for dedicated precincts in local and state planning policies, streamline the planning approval and environmental licensing process, and reform the current resource recovery order and exemption framework.

Such changes will help deliver certainty to industry; a much-needed requirement.

Reliability in the system is also paramount. The NSW Government must increase landfill capacity, and proactively support the importance of energy recovery as a viable solution to treat residual waste that cannot be recycled including, contaminated organics.

Finally, greater effort is required to eradicate sub-standard and illegal practices. The approach taken by Victoria to support a waste crime prevention inspectorate is commended.

For too long unlicensed and illegal waste activities have been allowed to occur across the state, harming the environment and putting the community at risk.

The NWRIC considers that all waste and recycling operations must be conducted in accordance with state, national and international environmental, health and safety regulations. Failure to do so is unacceptable.

Of course, essential to any effective strategy and action plan will be clear objectives, targets, data collection to review performance year-on-year, timely progress and adequate funding.

NSW is in a strong position to make these changes quickly. With more than $750 million raised per annum through the state waste levy and only 20 per cent being currently spent on waste and recycling activities, there is ample scope to implement the necessary changes.

This will serve to encourage the greater private investment necessary to create a more sustainable, reliable and affordable waste and recycling system.

The current climate clearly demonstrates that waste and recycling is a service essential to the health and well-being of NSW.

In this regard, the issues paper provides a positive outlook on how NSW can future proof its waste and recycling system as it transitions to a circular economy and recovers from COVID-19.

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Does Victoria need four bins?

With much discussion on a four-bin system in Victoria, the key questions are: how will it work? and what will it achieve? writes Jenni Downes, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks.

In the last two years since China implemented its National Sword waste import restrictions, the waste industry and many others have been watching and waiting for strong state government policy responses.

Victoria has just answered, with the release of its long-awaited circular economy policy Recycling Victoria.

It covers a suite of broad-scale changes warmly welcomed by Australia’s peak waste bodies, including regulation of waste as an essential service, progressively increasing the landfill levy, introducing standards and specifications and $100 million in support for industry and infrastructure development to support new markets.

However, the announcement that received the most immediate news coverage was the introduction of a consistent state-wide household recycling collection system capturing four separate streams (the four-bin system).

What is the proposed system, and how will it work?

Details are still being ironed out by individual councils, but by 2030 the new system will see collection expand from the current two or three bins that most households have to four bins.

Adapted by the author from

The purple glass stream will come first, with the gradual roll-out starting next year as some Victorian council’s existing collection contracts end.

The service will be fully in place by 2027. The expanded green bin service accepting food scraps alongside garden waste must be rolled out by 2030.

There are a number of important considerations to ensure a smooth transition and effective system.

Among these are: the type of glass service (eg. bin, crate or even drop-off point), the collection schedule (balancing household needs against transport efficiency) and new processing arrangements.

Another critical consideration is correct use of the new system, namely: keeping contamination of the green, yellow and purple bins to a minimum.

If the purpose of the new system is to improve the quality of collected materials then household behaviour is critical – and the policy recognises this, including provisions for statewide education and behaviour change campaigns.

We know from our research that “education” is rarely if ever sufficient to achieve widescale changes in behaviour. Recent BehaviourWorks research identified that changing the physical context is one effective way to disrupt existing recycling habits and allow new ones to emerge, and the extra bin(s) could provide this opportunity.

But any communications capitalising on this must be salient enough to grab and hold attention in our fast-paced, information overloaded world, plus address the many misconceptions and attitudinal barriers that undermine correct recycling.

Such campaigns could adopt persuasion and social modelling, and if rolled out state-wide, this might also change the social context, creating new social norms, all of which should reduce contamination behaviours.

The second, and more crucial question is, what will this achieve? (And is it necessary?)

We know that the issues affecting our recycling system fall on both the supply-side (eg. packaging design and collection) and demand-side (eg. infrastructure and end-markets).

While there is much that governments can do (and Victoria is certainly trying with its new policy) to directly stimulate demand, many local remanufacturers frequently point to the poor quality of household recyclables as a barrier – and the four-bin system is designed to tackle this.

The introduction of any consistent (and consistently-communicated) collection system across the state is the most exciting aspect of this announcement, and demonstrates strong leadership.

Such consistency should address one of the main drivers identified by BehaviourWorks behind household contamination: misinformation and confusion among households about what is and isn’t recyclable.

We also know that source separation of recyclables can increase the quality of material collected, and (despite ‘common sense views of convenience’) it can also actually make it easier for people to know what belongs in each bin. For example, it’s easier to know if something is a ‘plastic container’ than to know if it is ‘recyclable’.

One key issue with the current commingled collection system is the impact it has on the recyclability of both the kerbside glass and fibre streams, through the continual breaking down of glass items into piles of multi-coloured ‘fines’ and shard embedded in paper and cardboard.

Given the cross-contamination, it is perhaps no surprise that paper and glass are the most common single streams kerbside collections in Europe according to European Commission research, and both have rare appearances in Australia.

The new purple glass bin will substantially improve the quality of collected paper by removing the possibility for glass shards.

BehaviourWorks Australia (forthcoming report)

Owens-Illinois, Australia’s largest glass remanufacturer, also believes that a glass only collection will significantly increase glass recovery, up to at least 90 per cent, according to their submission to the last Federal Parliamentary Inquiry.

However, breakage is likely to be even greater in glass-only bins, which won’t have any cushioning from fibres and plastics, and so would presumably require additional colour sorting of glass fragments for any closed-loop recycling.

Glass crates or glass dropoff bring-back systems (such as that in Ballarat, VIC and Ipswich, QLD) could potentially reduce breakage, allowing easier colour sorting.

All of these will also (still) require households not to contaminate with ineligible items like glassware, ceramics and lightbulbs.

The alternative separated fibre stream (in blue-lidded bins in NSW) could also reduce the cross-contamination of paper by glass, as well as keeping the paper clean of any remaining food/liquid residues in glass, plastic and metal containers.

It also makes communication around the remaining commingled streams much simpler to households, as the yellow bin becomes the ‘container recycling’ bin for plastic, metal and glass containers.

There are also other alternatives that can be looked at such as reducing the compaction of recyclables in the collection trucks and expanding existing container deposit schemes.

Collection is only one piece of the puzzle

While standardising the recycling system and addressing cross-contamination of glass and paper should improve some aspects of quality, demand-side issues will still remain for household recycling.

Other elements are also needed to address larger household recycling and waste challenges.

These include increased extended producer responsibility schemes tackling unrecyclable packaging and planned obsolescence of products, national support for the recycling industry to meet the export ban, and regulating the incorporation of recycled material in packaging, products and infrastructure through government procurement policies, mandated industry targets and/or fiscal policies, such as a tax on products made from 100 per cent virgin materials.

This article appeared in the May edition of Waste Management Review. To subscribe to Waste Management Review with free home delivery click here

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Urgent collective procurement: SSROC

Councils must band together to foster a viable domestic recycling market, writes Helen Sloan, Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils Program Manager.

Reading the article by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean in December’s Waste Management Review, it was very gratifying to find him so supportive of the drive to take the waste sector into a new era of sustainability.

The 11 member councils of Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (SSROC) have supported this concept for many years and have now gone beyond support to action.

Each council has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU), undertaking to work together to develop a framework for regional procurement of recycled material, and drive investment in new remanufacturing infrastructure.

Australia’s current domestic market for recycled materials, and the infrastructure needed to process them into a clean, usable form, is woefully inadequate.

With the Council of Australian Government’s ban on the export of some recyclable materials, we need to develop our own recycling industry with some urgency. And domestic markets for the outputs and new products will be critical to the growth of that industry.

While councils conduct a lot of procurement, individually they may not need to purchase the large volumes of goods that might drive the development of an efficient, cost-effective and competitive industry.

By working together through their regional organisation, councils will send a powerful signal to potential suppliers that they are serious about products with recycled content, as well as demonstrating long-term demand.

The first procurement to be conducted under the new MoU is for materials for use in councils’ civil works – road maintenance, footpaths, bike paths and the like.

Given the 11 SSROC member councils – from the City of Sydney, inner west and eastern suburbs, to Sutherland Shire and Canterbury Bankstown – cover around 700 square kilometres, with a population of 1.7 million, that represents a lot of local roads and paths.

That is enough for the councils to set themselves a new annual target of recycling 45 million glass bottles.

Following the signing of the MoU late last year, Minister Kean praised the commitment from the SSROC, saying: We need all levels of government and industry working together and embracing initiatives like this to tackle waste in NSW.

“We look forward to working closely with councils and industry, so together we safeguard the future of NSW.”

Councils will first focus on introducing more recycled content in road-making materials, including recycled crushed glass and reclaimed asphalt pavement. SSROC demand for recycled glass in civil works is estimated at over 10,000 tonnes per year.

Since 2018, SSROC has led a series of workshops and collaborations with engineers, procurement experts and standards specification organisation NatSpec to develop the recognised performance standards for adopting a range of recycled materials in civil works.

The next phase of the project will investigate applications for a range of other recycled materials, such as plastic, tyre crumb and textiles.

Mayor of Burwood Council and SSROC President, Councillor John Faker said: “This is a significant step towards solving the recycling crisis. We know how important recycling is to the community, which is why our councils are taking the lead to ensure our recyclables are put to good use and kept out of landfill. This is a win-win for everyone.”

Councils cannot do this in isolation. With the Australian Government in November targeting significant increases in government procurement of recycled materials, it makes sense to liaise with other agencies and organisations, as well as working together.

So SSROC is inviting other councils and regional and joint organisations to consider joining the initiative.  SSROC is also liaising with NSW Government agencies, particularly Transport for New South Wales, to ensure that the procurement process will deliver products that meet their specifications and are effective and safe for workers to use.

This pioneering approach to joint regional procurement, in collaboration with key players in industry, government and academia, is intended to generate sufficient demand to influence market development beyond what councils might do alone.

It will allow councils to procure safe, affordable and high-quality materials, and will demonstrate that the model can be applied throughout the Sydney metropolitan area and indeed the entire state.

SSROC procurement services focus on large and complex goods and services, driven by our member councils’ priorities.

They are generally part of the delivery of a broader program of change involving multiple different stakeholders and specialist technical expertise.

The plan is that procurement of recycled materials for civil works will be just the first of many projects under the Procure Recycled program. Watch this space!

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Protecting staff essential in the face of coronavirus

Keeping staff safe, employed and ensuring waste and recycling stays on track is essential in the face or coronavirus, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC). 

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, defining what is and isn’t an essential service is a hot topic of discussion across every industry sector in Australia.

While not necessarily reflected consistently or comprehensively in all state legislation and regulations, there is no doubt governments at all levels consider waste and recycling services, and more importantly the workforce that make it happen, as essential.

“With a national focus on hygiene, the role of waste and recycling companies and their workers servicing homes, hospitals, building sites and supermarkets underlines the Prime Minister’s declaration that everyone who has a job in this challenging economy is now an essential worker,” wrote Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley on social media in March.

This is welcome news from the government. While it would be ideal to have a nationally consistent definition used by all states, what is key is that trucks can move across state and territory borders where necessary, staff can get to and from work and waste service providers have access to critical supplies needed to do their job.

This is evident by the willingness of all levels of government to listen and work with our members to address issues and challenges as they arise. From relaxation of collection curfews and flexibility in facility licensing conditions, to securing PPE and other key operational supplies.

Most state government Environment Ministers and departments have now set up weekly catch ups with key representatives from the waste and recycling sector to stay on top of issues, and feed them into the relevant state emergency and COVID response teams for consideration. Likewise at a national level, ministers and key federal agencies are accessible and listening. There is a lot on their plate.

For the NWRIC members, their focus has been on helping staff adapt to new working conditions out in the field or working from home. It’s a massive shift in everyone’s daily life and supporting staff through this process is an absolute priority.

Substantial work is also being undertaken on business continuity plans including working with council and business customers to maintain services in the context of social distancing, hygiene and staff safety. Likewise, looking at how businesses within the sector can help each other out in maintaining collections and operation of facilities, should the need arise.

The willingness to cooperate and help each other out where needed across the sector is a key strength. One example of this has been the driver exchange program setup by the Victorian Transport Association, which allows companies to share drivers should the need arise.

On the financial side, volumes are changing across the sector, which will obviously impact the bottom line for every business. With many businesses closing up, volumes in the C&I are slowing, while MSW are increasing as more and more of us ‘#stayhome’. It is still unclear how C&D or organic and FOGO volumes will change at this time.

On the e-waste side, the demand for second hand computers, screens and associated IT accessories to set up home offices has gone up, as has the need and ensure everyone has access to services online.

In terms of handling COVID-19 waste, the Federal and State Departments of Health provide guidance on this, with it being declared as a clinical waste in the health care environment, and to be bagged up and placed in the rubbish bin for residential properties.

With federal and state government support packages being announced on a regular basis, we encourage businesses to reach out to their state associations, the ATO and centrelink for information on what is available and relevant for your organisation.

The NWRIC has also suggested that relief be considered for landfill levy charges where relevant. For example, it is likely that some businesses will default on debts during this difficult time. Therefore, we propose that levies on bad debts be waived.

Similarly, planned levy increases, such as proposed recently by Victoria, should be deferred for six months. In the case of WA, a temporary waiver of levies at this time will discourage the disposal of metropolitan C&D waste out into regional areas.

Further, we believe now can be a challenging time for some recyclers as ports and overseas markets are slowing or closing. This is of particular relevance to those recyclers exporting recovered metals, paper, plastic, shredded tyres and refuse derived fuels. Providing temporary levy waivers on residuals from these recycling facilities would help keep staff employed and businesses operating.

The clear messages we are receiving from health departments are: practice good hygiene, social distancing and stay at home unless you are going to work, shopping, exercise or other essential travel. Even if we’re fit and well, these important actions will keep our staff safe and protect vulnerable Australians and health care workers.

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No more empty promises: ACOR

Australian Council of Recycling CEO Pete Shmigel provides a four-point plan for an Australian recycled content product reboot.

Promises and keeping them are important. Really important. In the form of norms and laws, kept promises are what keep our society glued together and functioning.

The same is true of Australian recycling. Every time someone participates in recycling – from presenting material at the kerbside or the city office building, to collecting and sorting and reprocessing and remanufacturing that material – we’re basically part of a promise. It’s a promise that that material will be made into a new product – a recycled content product (RCP).

In recent times, as Asian societies have changed their material import rules and some virulent mainstream media reports have followed, there have been many in Australian society who have been testing the promise. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Anyone involved in recycling – whether you’re running a company, a council waste educator or a one armed bandit – has heard the same question many times over: “So, is it really being recycled?”

This is evidence that regular punters, including those who make decisions about whether to hire recycling contractors at their businesses, are questioning the social licence of our industry to operate. It’s serious stuff – even if it’s based on perceptions and emotions than data and rationality. Narrative matters.

Those of us closer to the real numbers and the real facilities know the empirical reality. The vast majority of what’s collected, is in fact, recycled. Whether you run a material recovery facility (MRF), scrap metal site, glass beneficiation plant or a paper mill, you know the truth. More than 35 million tonnes is recycled, with only four million of that heading overseas.

At MRFs themselves, due to community-generated contamination and “wish-cycling”, loss rates generally don’t exceed 10 to 15 per cent as a result of good technology and good operators. Moreover, 50,000 recycling sector jobs and some $15 billion of GDP value just didn’t magically appear.

But ultimately, at the same time that waste awareness is very high, community confidence in recycling outcomes ain’t in great shape. Our industry needs that goodwill for business health and for the ongoing support of public policy decision-makers, especially as we make the tough but inevitable transition to domestically sustainable recycling.

Therefore, it’s time for us to get much more serious about RCPs – both as a method to meet our public promise and as a key part of domestic transformation. Fortunately, there are some good “green shoots” like Coca-Cola’s commitment to recycled content PET bottles (and let’s hope they’re Australia-sourced), and similar RCP initiatives from PACT, Asahi, Nestle, Unilever and others.

These are all good news, but the risk remains that without an overarching strategy, RCPs won’t become the norm they need to be. Us grey beards remember the demise, for example, of the Buy Recycled Business Alliance, and local government-based RCP purchasing initiatives like Eco-Buy in the early 2000’s.

An overall plan is especially necessary as we have to increase plastics take-up by 400 per cent, according to the SRU report for the Federal Government. Without this, the report found we won’t meet APCO targets and policy parameters such as the environment ministers’ directive to the packaging supply chain to get 20 per cent recycled content in PET and HDPE.

So, here’s a quick four-point plan for the “Australian RCP reboot”:

ONE: Results not rhetoric: The nice words from the Federal Government and the states, including at the last two meeting of environment minister meetings, need to become done deeds in developing RCPs and measurable targets. Councils, in fact, are probably doing better than the other tiers of government in areas such as secondary glass and mixed plastics into roads.

TWO: Follow the money: The economics of virgin material use compared to recyclate use – when using standard rationalist metrics – is not in favour of recycled products in some material categories. That’s partly a result of structural factors, including Australia’s comparatively high labour and energy costs, as well as increased amounts of historically inexpensive fossil fuel for virgin plastics resin manufacture. Therefore, if we want RCPs made here and all the social and environmental benefits that come with that, we have to pull economic levers here.

Options include UK- and France-style GST discounts for RCP manufacturers, European-style EPR schemes (if consumer costs can be contained) and energy rebates based on the energy-efficient nature of RCPs. Or, perhaps, given that secondhand goods such as those going through Vinnies and Lifeline are GST exempt, what’s so different about a “secondhand” plastic bottle?

THREE: Rules of the road: Agreed and recognised specs and standards around RCPs – be they for recycling collection, sorting, remanufacture or export – create confidence. There’s been a failure of leadership and communication in this area – and we’re all to blame. As Equilibrium’s recent report for the Commonwealth spells out, we need real standards and now. And we shouldn’t let any development processes drag on and become a delaying tactic by some self-interested players. It’s great to see industry innovators using RCPs including in roads using existing information; all it takes is normal risk mitigation and initiative.

FOUR: “Once you think you’ve communicated enough, communicate again”: RCPs become more viable when the supply chain is humming. For it to do that, there’s a case for better “vertically integrated” communication and education. For ratepayers that’s “recycling right” and helping them understand the RCPs their efforts help make. For procurement managers, civil engineers and other product specifiers, that’s on RCP availability and performance. For the community, it’s what brands are making RCP commitments and merit support at the cash register.

Or as one of my colleagues says: “If you’re not buying recycled, you’re a recycling bystander.” It’s time for those in a position to buy recycled – governments, councils, consumers, corporates – to get off the sidelines. And it’s time for our industry to strive for the best possible processes and RCPs that beat virgin on performance and confidence. That’s the promise we need to keep.

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Sustainable pavements: ARRB

Margaret Brownjohn from the Australian Road Research Board takes a look at lifecycle assessment and promoting the uptake of innovative recycling materials in roads. 

Sustainable development spans economic, social, environmental and governance aspects. Sustainability is no longer a “nice to have”.

The infrastructure industry in Australia is now driving outcomes that help reduce its ecological footprints. Many state and territory governments are also doing their bit to promote sustainability.

They have policy targets that govern procurement decision making. This includes reducing their annual greenhouse gas emissions, local jobs creation and diverting waste away from landfill.

Many states and territories are also requiring that major infrastructure projects undergo an Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia rating. This is an independent assessment process to assess innovation, sustainability and continuous improvement and compared to business-as-usual.


A challenge in promoting the uptake of more sustainable pavement technologies is communicating its whole-of-lifecycle sustainability and lifecycle asset performance to transport practitioners. Often there are win-win commercial and sustainability outcomes from the use of innovative pavement technologies.

As part of the National Asset Centre of Excellence (NACoE) partnership between Transport and Main Roads in Queensland and the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), a number of innovative pavement technologies have been developed, tested and trialled for application on Australian roads.

ARRB conducted a study where the lifecycle sustainability costs and benefits of different pavement technologies were assessed. This included quantification of greenhouse gas reductions over the pavement lifecycle.

These included the following technologies:


Reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP)

Crumbed rubber in binders

Foam bitumen stabilised (FBS) Bases

Local marginal materials.

EME 2 is a high-strength asphalt used in high-traffic urban arterials and motorways. It often reduces the base layer thickness by up to 30 per cent, which means lower use of virgin materials. It also means fewer lifecycle emissions due to less use of materials, haulage and construction emission. Approximately three per cent of lifecycle emissions and lifecycle cost savings are achievable with the use of EME 2 in an urban context.

RAP is a reprocessed pavement containing reused asphalt. This means less use of virgin materials and less clearing of trees for quarries. There may also be fewer emissions from haulage. 5.1 per cent lower emissions and lifecycle cost savings are also achievable. This is particularly notable where landfill levies and fees are applicable in regions like Queensland, which has an escalating levy each year.

The use of crumbed rubber in binders promotes local and circular economies, which both create jobs. Crumbed rubber also reduces the imports of materials like polymer modified binders. It may be hauled large distances and still achieve lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions.

FBS is a processed pavement base with increased strength and resilience to flood events. This reduces the risk of rehabilitation required after a flood. Because of its stiffer and thinner base, it also has lifecycle emissions reductions.

Marginal materials are locally sourced materials. They are beneficial where higher performing virgin materials are expensive and required to be hauled long distances. Due to reduced haulage, up to 22 per cent reduction in lifecycle emissions are achievable. It also promotes local industries in rural areas.

All technologies achieved lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions and commercial savings in the right context. General findings included that high durability and resilient pavements have good whole-of-lifecycle sustainability performance.

The largest emissions reductions are also achievable through vehicle technologies, such as electric vehicles. But every year of delay adds to cumulative emissions in the atmosphere and over the pavement lifecycle.

Future work will include quantifying the benefits of additional sustainable materials, including, but not limited to, the use of recycled glass and warm asphalt. The tool provides a framework in which pavement options may be assessed on a project-by-project basis for smarter procurement decision making.

If you are interested in finding out more about this work and its potential application, or customisation to your needs, contact ARRB at

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