Clean Up Australia message still resonates

Clean Up Australia

Three decades ago one man compelled a capital city to clean up its act. Today, his daughter is leading a national organisation that is empowering everyday Australians to clean, fix and conserve the environment.

Thirty-three years ago, horrified by the rubbish around Sydney Harbour, avid sailor Ian Kiernan began what is now one of the most recognised national community engagement campaigns – Clean Up Australia.

More than 20 million Australians and 38.5 million hours of volunteer time have since been donated as part of Clean Up Australia activities.

And as Australia’s waste challenges continue to grow, the organisation’s work is as important today as it was when it started, says Ian’s daughter, Pip Kiernan.

As the Chair of Clean Up Australia, Pip says the organisation’s focus has evolved and is as much about preventing rubbish entering the environment as it is removing what has already accumulated.

“The circular economy is crucial to getting us where we need to be when it comes to waste and resources,” Pip says. “We shouldn’t be talking about waste. It is all a resource that we must capture at its end-of-life and reuse.

“Dad was talking about those concepts of resource recovery, product stewardship and extended producer responsibility all those decades ago. He was a trailblazer.”

While Australia is tracking well in some aspects of waste management and resource recovery, there’s plenty of work still to be done in others, says Pip.

Plastics remain a challenge. It’s estimated about 130,000 tonnes of Australian plastic ends up in waterways and oceans each year.

Pip says several factors contribute to the challenge, including a rapid adoption of soft plastics and consumer confusion about what can and can’t be recycled.

“Plastic is readily available. We have used it in abundance without thinking enough about what we do with it at end-of-life,” she says.

“We really need to get better about reducing our use, then capturing and recycling what we can.

“There is so much community desire for that change. Most consumers I speak with are frustrated by the number of plastics. If industry and businesses can step up and accelerate that change to reuse and recycle, they will be rewarded by consumer behaviour.” 

Pip says there are good things happening, including the phasing out of plastics across the nation. But what she calls a patchwork approach is leading to consumer confusion and makes it difficult for industry.

She wants to see Australia ramp up the level of recycling and processing of soft plastics and more education to help simplify the process for consumers.

“Most people think it’s recyclable and put it in the yellow bin,” Pip says. “It’s ending up in the wrong spot where it contaminates good recyclables, breaks machinery, and inhibits the process of good recycling.

“Australians believe recycling is right, but we’re not getting it right.”

A lack of harmonisation across the country is adding to that confusion because there are different rules depending on where you live.

Pip points to the Australian Recycling Label (ARL), and the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) Recycle Mate app as success stories when it comes to helping consumer uptake of recycling.

While not mandatory, the ARL breaks down individual elements of packaging and what consumers can do with them. Recycle Mate uses Artificial Intelligence to identify waste and recyclables to find the best local disposal option, specific to the users location.

Both initiatives, Pip says, are examples of a groundswell of action to come up with solutions for recycling.

“In 2020 at the Federal Government plastics summit there was some great pledges from industry and community groups about what changes they would make to help tackle the plastics crisis we’re in,” she says.

“We can see some of those happening now, which is encouraging. Consumers reward the brands that are doing well.”

While Clean Up Australia is best known for its clean-up events and Week of Action, Australia’s waste challenges go beyond one day, and the organisation encourages communities, schools and businesses to step up and play their role.

The organisation recently launched a Buy Recycled site, which encourages and promotes brands that are working towards the circular economy, and supported the launch of a repair network within Australia.

Pip hopes the Australian Government’s Remade in Australia campaign will also stimulate promotion of products with recycled content made in Australia and help continue the drive to a circular economy.

“That requires effort from industry, government and everyday Australians,” she says. “Within the next five years I’d like to see a drastic reduction in what we’re sending to landfill and a surge in what we’re recycling and capturing in Australia and turning into products.

“We can create jobs and industry for Australia rather than create more problems for future generations.”

Clean Up Australia Day 2023 will be held on Sunday March 5. 

Business Clean Up Day is on Tuesday, February 28 and is open to businesses and organisations of all sizes. 

To register, visit:

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