Information on consumer products and packaging is shining the spotlight on recycling operations across Australia. Waste Management Review speaks with industry to discuss consumer confusion and achieving labelling consistency.
Are Australia’s recycling operations and packaging fooling consumers? Environmental groups and industry insiders have recently been speaking out about the cynicism at the heart of consumer focused recycling strategies.
An independent audit commissioned by the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has fuelled conversation surrounding current recycling labels.
Pete Shmigel, ACOR CEO, told Waste Management Review that Australia is better than it’s ever been in terms of policy, investment and stakeholder engagement.
Shmigel commented that sensationalist views that reflect an anti-recycling narrative are disappointing, with ACOR and other industry associations focussed on improving plastic packaging recycling from less than 20 per cent at present, to ambitious and unprecedented national targets, such as 70 per cent recycling of plastic packaging and 30 per cent recycled content for PET and HDPE.
Shmigel says the sector agrees that recycling labels on products – while somewhat improved in the recent era – need to significantly improve.
On August 20 this year, ACOR released findings from an independent national audit of recycling information on consumer products and packaging.
“The audit shows a dog’s breakfast of consumer information about what products and packaging components are or aren’t recyclable,” Shmigel says.
He adds that the “the dog’s breakfast” undoubtedly leads to some material going to the wrong place such as recyclables to waste bins and non-recyclables to recycling bins.
“That means recycling rates that aren’t as high as they could be, contamination that is too high, and it’s harder to achieve national targets such as 70 per cent plastics recycling (from our current 12 per cent).”
Additionally, the audit found that 55 per cent of imported products and 64 per cent of Australian sampled products displayed a recyclability claim, including 23 per cent with the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), 29 per cent with a Mobius Loop recycling symbol and 29 per cent with a resin code system that is often mistaken for a recyclability symbol.
Shmigel says the recycling logos are inconsistent and a pain point that’s triggering consumer confusion.
“Although the majority of products had a recycling claim, the logos were commonly only on outer packaging rather than on each packaging component,” the report reads.
Furthermore, 52 per cent of products sampled consisted of more than one packaging component.
The report states that this was a significant finding with respect to inconsistent recycling labels relating to one or more packaging types.
The audit identified that some labelling is incorrect or non-existent, and that terminology used to explain the recyclability of packaging is not consumer friendly, for example, “this packaging is recyclable” when only one component is actually recyclable.
“Other incorrect statements included liquid paper board packaging that claimed to be recyclable and soft plastic packaging that contained a recycling logo with no explanation or guidance on separating from other recyclables and where to recycle it,” the report reads.
The assessment concluded that ambiguity is influencing consumer’s ability to effectively recycle packaging through recycling programs, and that recyclability labels need to be specific about the disposal methods of all components, with instructions included to avoid contamination.
“If we have such arrangements for nutrition, we can have them for consumer recycling,” Shmigel says.
Consumers are increasing their awareness and directing concerns to the manufacturers of the products they buy, actively asking company consumer hotlines: what is your approach to recycling labelling?
“And, those companies who specify products and packaging must also step up to correctly label their products, while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission should ensure accuracy in environmental claims and labels,” Shmigel says.
Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) CEO Brooke Donnelly says there are gaps in the current recycling system’s capability, but the good news is that Australia has a clear plan in place to solve them.
Currently, 88 per cent of packaging placed on the market in Australia is able to be recycled within the existing infrastructure, technology and systems in place.
However, only 49 per cent of that packaging actually gets recycled.
“That gap – between something being recyclable and something being recycled – is not a result of failed packaging design. It is a failure of the processes that packaging goes through once it enters the bin. That includes the way it is collected, recovered and reprocessed,” Donnelly says.
Australia needs solutions that are systemic and transformative in nature, Donnelly says. She adds that challenges do exist in the recycling label space, with the number of different labels on packaging contributing to consumer confusion.
“Responsibility for change of this magnitude is not owned by a single entity, actor or stakeholder. Rather, its effectiveness relies on action from a diverse range of stakeholders, sometimes in the thousands and in the case of consumers, the millions,” Donnelly says.
She adds that APCO are excited to see the leadership and hard work of Australian industry being recognised, with the ARL featured on approximately a quarter of all products sampled in the ACOR audit.
“This is an incredible achievement within a short time frame. The ARL Program is continuing to grow rapidly and tracking well compared to similar programs being implemented globally.”
As of July, this year, the ARL Program had 436 Members, including many of Australia’s major household brands and retailers.
In comparison, the United States’ How2Recycle Program, which began in 2012, reported 225 brand owner and retailer members across North America in 2019.
Meanwhile, the UK’s OPRL Program, which launched in 2009, reported 500 members in 2020.
Planet Ark CEO Paul Klymenko says Planet Ark is impressed with the level of ARL uptake, after launching the program with APCO and PREP Design just two years ago.
“The uptake has been significantly faster than comparable international labels, and the ARL has been recognised by international bodies like the United Nations Environment Program as best practice when it comes to informing consumers how to best dispose of their packaging,” he says.
IMPROVING RECYCLING CAPABILITIES
“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,” Josh Wilson, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment, told Waste Management Review.
He says the exports bans have shone a light on the fact that a significant amount of Australia’s waste management industry consists of collection and transportation.
Wilson believes Australia has a long way to go when it comes to improving its 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 says.
Shmigel added that millions are being invested in this regard to get an environmental outcome – but not to deride from sustainable consumption.
Nationally, Australia is working to implement the 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan, which includes the 2025 National Packaging Targets.
The last 12 months have seen significant investment from brands and governments to drive progress in the space, including the Recycling Modernisation Fund which will see the Federal Government invest $190 million.
When matched by state governments and industry, this will leverage $600 million in recycling infrastructure investment and drive a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the Recycling and Waste Reduction “landmark legislation” would see Australia take responsibility for its waste by establishing a national industry framework for recycling.
Although a national approach is essential, Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO says Australia also needs more investment of state waste levies into recycling infrastructure and related programs.
Read explains that while the Federal Government, together with state governments, are helping with the new Recycling Modernisation Fund, it is the private sector that has the capacity to invest for the long term.
“To build the new plastic processing facilities needed 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 licensing processes in such a way that it does not deter private investment in these new recycling plants.”
It’s clear a major challenge for recycling does exist with contamination, which can be addressed through improvements to packaging.
Industry and government need to continue to educate consumers and ensure responsible management of their materials throughout the supply chain.
As Mark Smith, Waste Recycling Industry Association Queensland CEO says – waste, recycling and all its elements are a collective challenge that needs to be tackled collaboratively.