Recycling industry responds to ‘plastic wars’

Industry has defended Australia’s recycling operations following an ABC Four Corners investigation on ‘plastic wars’ that revealed the actions of the American plastics industry are ‘fooling consumers’.

Pete Shmigel, Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) CEO, told Waste Management Review he was disappointed in ABC’s Four Corners “anti-recycling narrative” that has been rejected by industry executives and experts.

On Monday August 10, ABC aired Plastic Wars, a PBS Frontline production presented by Craig Reucassel on its national current affairs program, Four Corners.

“The program shows how tactics brought in decades ago are still fooling consumers,” Four Corners states on its program description.

“For decades we’ve been told that we can do our bit for the environment by recycling our waste. But as Four Corners revealed in 2017, much of Australia’s recycling operations have been effectively a sham with mountains of waste being stockpiled with nowhere to go.”

Shmigel said the Australian recycling industry welcomes community dialogue on awareness about recycling processes that the public strongly supports, but “the USA is obviously not Australia, and there is ample objective evidence that the vast majority of what Australians present for recycling is made into new products that reduce landfill, greenhouse gases and resources while contributing some 50,000 regional jobs”.


“Do we have challenges in Australia? absolutely! No body benefits from sensationalised claims… overall when you look at recycling rates in Australia, they are better than the US. In fact, we’re getting more consistent and synchronised,” Schmigel told Waste Management Review.

“Australia’s overall trend is good, for a television broadcast to suggest we’re going backwards is wrong. We are probably better than we’ve ever been in terms of policy, investment and stakeholder engagement.”

The program shows how over decades, clever marketing campaigns were created to persuade consumers they should carry the burden of plastic pollution, by recycling, rather than expecting industry to reduce the amount of plastic it manufactured.

According to Four Corners, the program shows how tactics brought in decades ago are still fooling consumers.

“At the bottom of all these plastic containers is this little chasing arrow—the little recycling symbol with a number…there are no kerbside programs that would accept any of these tubs,” an environmental scientist said in the program.

Shmigel said any claim that suggests material collected for recycling goes mostly to landfill is nonsense.

“You can’t get to a 60 per cent recovery rate by constantly sending material to landfill! That is the fundamental fact,” he said.

However, Shmigel said the sector agrees that recycling labels on products – while somewhat improved in the recent era –  needs to significantly improve.

“We will soon release an audit in this regard and make recommendations to the Federal Government, including the need for every packaged product to have a clear, consistent and evidence-based label akin to food and country of origin labelling,” he said.


“Society wide we bought this myth that recycling will solve the problem and we don’t need to worry about the amount of plastic being produced,” A Greenpeace spokesperson said during the television program.

Shmigel said ACOR is focussed on improving plastic packaging recycling from less than 20 per cent at present to very ambitious and unprecedented national targets, such as 70 per cent recycling of plastic packaging and 30 per cent recycled content for PET and HDPE.

In relation to Four Corners footage showing international landfill stockpiling, Josh Wilson, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment, said the exports bans have shone a light on the fact that a significant amount of our waste management industry in Australia has consisted of collection and transportation.

“We have sent a lot of waste overseas for recycling only to discover that some of it was being buried or burnt or thrown in the river. We have to step-up and make a change for the sake of our own environment, and to show regional and global leadership,” Wilson told Waste Management Review.

Despite the program highlighting the waste industry in the USA, Wilson believes Australia has a long way to go when it comes to improving our entire approach to waste.

“There is no doubt we need to significantly reduce the amount of plastic we produce, and we need to stop using single-use pernicious plastics altogether. State and local governments in Australia have been prepared to target single-use plastic, but the Federal Government has so far been a laggard in this space,” he said.

On July 6, The Federal Government announced $190M Recycling Modernisation Fund will generate $600 million of recycling investment and drive a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity.

“Millions are being invested in this regard to get an environmental outcome – not to deride from sustainable consumption,” Shmigel said.

Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) CEO said Australia needs to that more state waste levies are re-invested into recycling infrastructure and related programs.

“We need to encourage greater private sector investment to grow recycling capacity and capability quickly.   While the Australian Government together with State Government’s are helping with the new Recycling Modernisation Fund announced in July. It is the private firms that have the capacity to invest for the long term that will build the infrastructure we need,” she said.

“To build the new plastic processing facilities by the time the plastic waste export bans come in to place in June 2021 and 2022 we also need States and Territories to better manage their planning and licencing processes in such a way that it does not deter private investment in these new recycling plants.”

Peter Wadewitz OAM, National Chair for the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA), said it would be wrong to claim that there are no common issues between Australia and the US, and a greater mistake not to pay heed to the lessons to be learnt from their errors.

“In the midst of addressing the challenges in plastics and other streams, it must be remembered that there are parts of the Australian recycling industry which consistently deliver on their promises. The circular economy works best in organics recycling because it is the industrialisation of a natural process,” he said.

“The organics recycling industry does not export its problems.”

He said AORA advocates that Australia’s governments must urgently ban single-use plastics which are not recyclable, reusable or compostable, with exemptions for plastics used in medical and similar devices.

“Our industry’s products are needed for programs to meet state and national targets… these opportunities must not be lost with the current focus on other, more problematic recycling streams,” Wadewitz said.


Gayle Sloan, Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) CEO, said ABC’s coverage reiterates what the WMRR has been calling out for years – packaging design in Australia needs an urgent overhaul and producers must be held responsible for the products they make.

“The key take-away from last night’s program is that business as usual for plastic packaging does not work. We also need to recognise that recycling in many ways is an end-of-pipe solution that does not tackle the growing and persistent problem highlighted in the show – that of unsustainable plastic packaging design and production,” Sloan said.

However, like Shmigel, she said the narrative that’s being pushed – that solving plastic packaging is all about recycling and the consumer being responsible for sorting “is unfair and incorrect”.

Sloan is calling for a bold change, it is time for a “carrot and stick approach” to tackle packaging.

She believes the issue at hand is not Australia’s collection or sorting systems.

“Australia still doesn’t place enough emphasis on the role of generators to ensure they are responsible for both the design and responsible management of their materials throughout the supply chain,” she said.

“We need to take this back to first principles, with legislated (not voluntary) design standards, and if a producer does not want to follow these, then they must have their own funded collections systems. The narrative put forward by the packaging industry has completely deflected from producer responsibility and meeting the true cost of collecting and recycling these materials.”

Mark Smith, Waste Recycling Industry Association Queensland (WRIQ) CEO, said in a members notice before the program aired on Monday August 10, the he was concerned about the potential comparisons that will be made to the Australian market.

However, Smith further noted that the ABC Four Corners program has created an opportunity for discussion and engagement with community and business about their role in supporting sustainable outcomes and “helping Queensland become Australia’s most progressive state in waste management and the circular economy”.

Smith said for Australia to achieve our potential we need to make sure all parts of our economy are working together. Like Sloan, he is calling for improvements to the design of packaging.

“A major challenge for recycling does exist with contamination which can be address through improvements to packaging, improvements household disposal supported by education and improvements to MRF operations. It’s a collective challenge and needs to be tackled collectively,” he said.

WRIQ now sits on the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation’s (APCO) Technical Advisory Committee and will be consulted on APCO’s upcoming education program of work.

“Let’s get the basics across the State right first,” Smith said.

“It’s important to remember that not all Australians are starting from the same place. 44 local government areas in Queensland only just started to have access to recycling programs in recent years. In our quest for improving outcomes in our major urban areas it cannot be at the cost of access for regional communities.”


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