Why better product stewardship will benefit recycling sector

product stewardship

Suzanne Toumbourou, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council of Recycling, explains why better product stewardship will reward the recycling sector.

We all want the recycling sector to grow and prosper. Good recyclers do vital work, and do it to a high standard, addressing environmental and social priorities while advancing economic outcomes.

As the pre-eminent industry forum for recyclers, Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) is focused on leading the transition to a circular economy through the resource recovery, remanufacturing and recycling supply chain. We spend a lot of time talking to recyclers about what’s needed to support a thriving industry.

product stewardship
Suzanne Toumbourou, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council of Recycling. Image: ACOR.

A clear message has arisen from recyclers about a key element that can create more opportunities for the sector: better product stewardship.

These days, we’re all familiar with one or more product stewardship initiatives. From beverage containers to batteries, these programs make it their missions to take responsibility for the end-of-use management of their products.

And we all know how much the priority of a circular economy has transformed the context of waste. Years ago, materials had a linear flow: ‘take, make, waste, disappear’. These days, it is an imperative for recovered materials to re-enter the market, in a fit-for-purpose-way, through the recycling value chain. 

Here’s how high-quality product stewardship schemes can support better circular economy outcomes and greater opportunities for investment in best-practice recycling.

First, design for recycling and reuse must be prioritised. Building in a priority of recyclability creates more certainty for investment in recycling infrastructure and, of course, less waste.

Next, there must be robust market demand for recycled materials and the products made from them. With a focus on markets for recycled materials, product stewardship initiatives can support more value, scale and ongoing viability of recycling. 

Strong signals from government can do a lot to strengthen markets. In the UK, governments set a minimum recycled plastic content for plastic items. The certainty and clarity of the new rules created a stable, reliable market for recycled polymers, sparking a flurry of investment in the sector.

Scale is critical, as is addressing the true cost of recycling processes. In Australia, there is a high cost to labour, energy, transport, infrastructure, and the research and development that keep recyclers growing. Our products also need to compete with the price of new, mostly imported, non-recycled products. 

Developing markets, both at home in Australia and overseas, means governments and industry will be more inclined to properly invest in necessary infrastructure including collection points, storage, logistics and processing. Enhanced collection infrastructure ensures that material can be aggregated at sufficient volumes, helping recyclers to grow.

In many cases, consumers will also need incentives, such as deposit schemes, to encourage them to dispose of products correctly, supporting source separation and diverting hazardous items such as batteries from conventional waste and recycling streams. 

Another benefit of good product stewardship is the positive perceptions they can create for the recycling sector. Goodwill can be fostered when people can clearly see that their end-of-use product is genuinely recycled into something useful.

Protecting ourselves from negative perceptions is essential to keep our industry strong – and that means tightening product stewardship scheme governance. From scandals where collected items haven’t been recycled, to a general perception that “they don’t really recycle these things do they?”, negative publicity quickly erodes social licence and drives poor recycling behaviours. This ultimately results in challenges establishing new projects, along with more contamination in recycling streams – adding expense and inefficiency. 

Another part of the mix is compliance and consequences to ensure that product stewardship schemes are held to account. A system of ‘bespoke’ accreditation schemes run by brand owners can lead to self-reporting, skewing the data and potentially creating a system where what’s cheap and easy is prioritised over genuine and high value recycling outcomes. A good way to address this would be an overarching recycler-led accreditation program, ensuring that all schemes align to consistent metrics, and good recyclers can be fairly assessed.

For more detail on the opportunities for the recycling industry created by product stewardship, see our recent report Recyclers in Product Stewardship. Better product stewardship will support a stronger recycling sector, ensure fairness for operators, and help make our economy truly circular, benefitting jobs, businesses and environment – and that’s good for everyone. 

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