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.