Clean loop recycling: TOMRA

Container deposit schemes are the first step in changing the way people think about the circular economy and the importance of reusing precious resources, TOMRA’s Ryan Buzzell explains. 

Collaborative success stories are abound throughout the waste industry, with initiatives such as the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation and Food Innovation Australia Limited highlighting the central role industry plays in developing Australia’s legislative resource recovery framework.

In recent years, the industry/government alliance model has been applied to the nationwide establishment of container deposit schemes (CDS), to great success.

Ryan Buzzell, TOMRA Collection Solutions Australia President, highlights CDS’ as a standout example of government and industry working together to protect natural resources for societal reuse.

“We’re about to learn a lot about the impacts of plastics in our oceans, including their impact on our society and human health. I believe that sustainability, and particularly the circular economy concept, will become an urgent priority in the next few years,” Ryan says.

“To address that, we need to ensure those concepts remain at the forefront of business innovation and government policy decisions. I think those two entities working together can really make significant positive change.”

With the majority of his working life spent at TOMRA, Ryan’s commitment to fostering the circular economy is a lifelong passion.

“I remember learning about greenhouse gases and their impact on the climate in primary school and thinking I wanted to be part of the solution,” he says.

Beginning his relationship with TOMRA in 2005, Ryan started working at the company in an entry level position with the collection solutions division.

“When I came across TOMRA in 2005, it was clear to me that this was an organisation that aligned with my personal values. And 15 years later, that’s still something that holds true.

“Since then I’ve held progressive positions within the organisation. More recently in 2015, I was General Manager of our business in New York City. And then in 2017, I came to Australia to head up our business here, with the onset of the CDS in NSW.”

BILLIONS OF BOTTLES 

In his Cleaning Up Our Act: Redirecting the Future of Plastic in NSW Minister’s Message, Environment Minister Matt Kean highlights plastic as synonymous with the global consumer economy – underpinning “our use and dispose mentality”.

Ryan shares similar sentiments, calling Australia’s cultural attachment to single-use items a major problem that requires innovative solutions and behavioural change.

“The past 40 years have seen our unsustainable linear economic model – take, make, dispose – accelerate at a significant rate, with approximately one million plastic bottles now bought every minute globally. We need to work at addressing that issue and promoting awareness about the value of the circular economy model.”

Mirroring sentiments expressed by TOMRA CEO Stefan Ranstrand at the 2019 World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, Finland, Ryan says with an estimated 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value lost to the economy, the international community needs to work to unlock that economic potential.

He highlights that in doing so, the global economy could unleash up to $85 billion annually.

Furthermore, Ryan says the environmental effects of plastic waste are set to increase without action, with estimates suggesting plastic production will rise by 40 per cent over the next 10 years.

Despite the scale of the problem, Ryan remains optimistic, noting the success of NSW’s CDS Return and Earn.

“The CDS, which has demonstrated positive effects on recovery rates, will be instrumental in improving our future environmental outcomes and addressing the waste crisis,” he says.

“CDS’ offer an opportunity to show people how the circular economy can work and encourages them to look at other areas of their consumption, thereby breaking down barriers and changing people’s mindsets and behaviours.”

In July 2017, TOMRA, in a joint venture with Cleanaway, was appointed Return and Earn network operator by the NSW Government. As part of the network operator JV, TOMRA provides technology and software, including reverse vending machines.

Cleanaway provides logistics, material sorting and recyclable commodities brokerage. Administered by scheme coordinator Exchange for Change and regulated by the NSW EPA, Return and Earn represents a well-oiled example of industry/government collaboration.   

Since it was introduced, the scheme has seen more than 3.4 billion containers returned and recycled, with NSW Parliamentary Environment Secretary James Griffin remarking on Return and Earn’s then 67 per cent redemption rate for eligible drink containers at the time of the scheme’s second anniversary in December last year.

Ryan estimates that more than one billion containers would have found their way to landfill or litter over the last two years. While the success of Return and Earn is likely well known to most in the waste and resource recovery sector, Ryan says its impact can be measured beyond bottles collected and litter reduction rates.

He adds that the scheme has fundamentally changed the way NSW residents think about waste and litter, thereby illustrating a public willingness to engage in the circular economy.

“More and more, Australians are understanding that waste is a resource and actually something that holds value. But society still needs a push or a reminder to turn that into a habit,” Ryan says.

CDS’ work by adding a small extra deposit on top of the price of a beverage – such as those in plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans – which is refunded to the consumer when they return the empty drink container for recycling.

“This is typically established through legislation passed by state or national governments. When the consumer purchases the beverage, they pay the additional deposit on the container. Once they have finished with their beverage, the consumer returns the container to receive their deposit back,” Ryan says.

“That’s where CDS models work so well: by attaching an incentive to those products to remind people that these are valuable resources. CDS functions as a very tangible example of the circular economy in action.”

CLEAN LOOP RECYCLING

While the plastic waste crisis is affecting the entire globalised world, Ryan says the combination of collaborative action and innovative technology offers a real solution. He adds that significant economic, social and environmental opportunities can be found in TOMRA’s clean loop recycling ethos.

Despite most being aware of the closed loop recycling process, TOMRA is championing an updated model, with clean loop recycling at the forefront of the company’s business framework.

“What we mean by clean loop recycling is using technology at the point of return for bottles and cans to essentially recognise the container and sort it on the front end,” Ryan says.

“This keeps contamination in the material streams to an absolute minimum, which ensures those clean streams of material can be turned back into new bottles rather than being downcycled.”

According to Ryan, over 50 per cent of the containers collected through Return and Earn are recycled into new bottles and cans, highlighting the scheme’s prioritisation of high order recycling.

“Rather than downcycling the material we collect, Return and Earn works to lessen the need for virgin material production by turning old bottles and cans into new bottles and cans – thereby extending the lifecycle of the original material,” he says.

Containers collected in the greater Sydney region are returned to a Sydney recycling facility for processing and on-sale to other businesses to be re-used. Ryan adds that containers collected in regional areas are processed at regional recycling facilities, reducing the need to transport materials across the state.

Plastic is undoubtably the workhorse material of the modern economy, Ryan adds. Addressing the plastic waste problem therefore requires more than just telling consumers to buy less.

“To achieve the ambitious goals of a circular economy, it’s necessary to employ state-of-the-art approaches that push boundaries, with TOMRA’s reverse vending and waste sorting solutions helping to achieve this by recovering materials and providing valuable insight into the composition of these materials,” he says.

“The result is a greater understanding of where efficiencies can be made to minimise costs and waste, and better utilise resources within a closed loop – further mitigating the impact of CO2 and other emissions and inefficiencies.”

According to Return and Earn’s consumer research, conducted in December 2019, eight out of 10 Return and Earn participants are satisfied with the scheme. While over three-quarters of NSW residents believe it will reduce the amount of litter in the state.

Ryan adds that TOMRA’s research shows more than half of NSW residents are using the scheme, which in turn demonstrates how easy access to drop-off points and a well-planned network of collections and recovery infrastructure is critical to building Australia’s circular economy.

Recent research also shows that for young people 18 and 24, the environment is now their number one concern above health and the economy. This, Ryan suggests, demonstrates the circular economy concept taking root.

“I expect we will see more of these thoughtful consumers emerging in the future, with CDS enabling the consideration of not just what you’re buying and using, but also where those products are going to end up,” he says.

“CDS’ are a great example of delivering on the triple bottom line of sustainability: less litter in the environment, refunds used to benefit charities and local community groups, and lastly, recycled containers becoming a part of the circular economy through extended product life.”

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