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.
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.
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.