Want to know how to get rid of most of Australia’s stockpile of recyclable plastic in one fell swoop?
Use it to build the $5 billion Snowy Hydro 2.0 – or at least its roads.
That’s the kind of thinking that could help dig Australia out of the quagmire it finds itself in a year after China put a halt to accepting recycling from us (and much of the rest of the world).
On the face of it, we’ve appeared to do a good job of recycling. We’ve dutifully sorted our plastic, glass, cans and paper for kerbside collection. Overall, we’ve recovered 58 per cent of the waste we generated. And of the 67 million tonnes of waste we’ve generated each year, 37 million tonnes has been sent for recycling.
But what has happened next has not been so straightforward.
Mostly, we’ve been shipping our problem overseas, largely to developing countries where it has created an environmental nightmare for some of the poorest nations in south-east Asia.
Now that those regions are shutting us out – with not just China but Malaysia and India refusing to take our plastic bottles and other recyclable materials – the wheels, so to speak, have fallen off our old «recycling» system.
Contractors in Australia have resorted to stockpiling, a fact that has mainly caught our attention when those stockpiles have caught fire.
So what are we going to do with our recycling?
“The reality is, the proximity principle should apply,” says Pete Shmigel, CEO of the Australian Council of Recycling. “If we are generating the material in this country, we should deal with it in this country.
“We don’t have a choice. I don’t think we really have that many options.”
Would burning some of it help?
Operators of an illegal dump in Melbourne certinaly thought it would. They were caught recently trying to torch 6000 cubic metres of recyclable plastic in an industrial incinerator to avoid penalties for their unauthorised stockpiles. They had cut a big hole in the roof of the western suburbs warehouse to allow potentially toxic smoke to escape.
More sophisticated incineration has long been used to deal with waste in China, Europe and the Middle East, converting waste to energy – heat and electricity. These high-tech «waste-to-energy» incinerators aim to capture most pollution and reduce vast volumes of waste to ash, which is then buried.
It’s a technology that Australia is set to take up too: a project in Western Australia is slated for 2020 and two more are on the drawing board for Victoria. But another was knocked back in western Sydney last July after uncertainty over health risks and the impact on air and water quality. In the US, local communities have protested against incinerators being built in their towns.
But while incineration is one way to deal with waste that might otherwise end up in landfill, it is not the same as recycling. In Sweden, for example, which has largely banned landfill, half of waste is incinerated – the energy is used to do things such as heat homes – and 49 per cent is recycled. The national priorities, though, are waste prevention and reusing products for the purpose they were originally intended, says Avfall Sverige, the Swedish waste management recycling association.
What about using recyclables to make something else?
While this would seem smart, it hasn’t caught on in a big way among manufacturers in Australia yet.
Some companies are making «plastiphalt» bitumen out of plastic pellets and sand from ground-up glass to build roads. (One such road was recently built in Sydney’s south and another is about to start in Melbourne’s north-west.)
Recycled plastics are being used in a variety of products, such as outdoor furniture, and could also be used to help build schools and playgrounds.
If recycled content was used on roads and some of the construction materials, you would not have any stockpiles.
But the current scale of domestic production is far too small to make a dent in our enormous stockpiles.
For recycling advocate Pete Shmigel, using recyclable materials in the Snowy Hydro scheme would be a no-brainer. “On that one project alone, if recycled content was used on roads and some of the construction materials, you would not have any stockpiles,” he says.
“Last time I looked, it was 27 kilometres worth of roads for Snowy Hydro – that’s the roads alone, let alone all the other infrastructure. That’s huge, that’s a lot of recycled plastic.”
A federal bipartisan committee said similar things last year, following a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s waste and recycling industry – but little has come of its recommendations.
What’s the rest of the world doing?
It seems that the globe is reaching peak plastic – or, at least, there has been action in a variety of different places this year. On May 10, in what was hailed as a landmark pact, more than 180 countries – the US not among them – agreed to be legally bound under the UN Basel Convention to manage the import and export of thousands of types of plastic waste in away that was transparent and traceable.
Nations are seeking their own solutions with an increased sense of urgency. East Timor announced on May 17 that it would use Australian technology to build a plastics recycling plant to lead the way in becoming a “plastic neutral” country.
Bali’s governor is among Indonesian leaders who have moved to ban plastic bags, straws and styrofoam packaging. He also recently floated a $14-per-tourist “green tax” to help the island deal with its huge plastic problem.
The fundamental difference is between voluntarism and an approach that is mandated.
Meanwhile, countries as far afield as Malta, Bulgaria and even war-torn Ukraine do a much better job of recycling than Australia, says Schmigel.
“Here’s a country that’s at war,” he says of Ukraine. “It has an average monthly income of something like $1000 and, sure enough, when I’m at a Holiday Inn there, there are recycling bins for my batteries. It’s a compulsory program required by the government that the battery manufacturers [adopt]. And yet we’re still having a debate about whether we should have a program.
“This is the shift [from] a voluntary, ad hoc kind of approach to an approach that is systematic, and the real benefits that these things can generate.”
France and Britain, which have banned single-use plastics and introduced tax breaks for companies that make products using recycled materials, have pushed much further ahead than Australia, he says.
Some European countries make these reforms mandatory rather than optional. France, for example, imposes a 10 per cent tax on companies that make products or packaging out of non-recycled plastic.
“The fundamental difference is between voluntarism and an approach that is mandated,” Shmigel says. “In the EU, for 20 years, it has said, ‘These are the targets that apply and you have to put in place systems to achieve those targets.’
“With those targets, they know, come some cost but they believe that cost is very small compared to the social and environmental benefits they generate as a result. In Australia, for whatever reason, we have basically said, ‘Sorry, the cost is prohibitive and therefore we won’t do it.’ And for me, that’s actually a fallacy.”
What does government have in the pipeline?
The National Waste Policy, updated in 2018, recommends that by 2030 Australia divert 80 per cent of waste from landfill and achieve a recycling rate of 30 per cent across all goods and infrastructure.
Action on the policy has stalled. In December, state and federal environment ministers committed to urgently develop funding and targets – by the time of their next meeting, which hasn’t happened yet.
The Coalition’s $203-million environment policy, spruiked before the May election, includes $100 million to promote the use of recycled materials in manufacturing, $20 million for a product stewardship investment fund and a pledge to push for more recycled content to be used in road construction.
State governments collect around $1.5 billion a year from levies charged when rubbish is sent to landfill – and spend around a fifth of that on reducing waste.
The $100 million for recycling, the single biggest item in the policy, looks set to go to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation investment fund to help businesses pay for projects that reuse recyclable materials in manufacturing projects.
The product stewardship fund would encourage – but not mandate – industry recycling schemes for products such as batteries, electrical products, solar cells and plastic oil containers.
The Australian Greens have been pushing for compulsory product stewardship as well as a national container deposit scheme by 2021 and mandatory targets for waste recovery.
Meanwhile, state governments collect around $1.5 billion a year from levies charged when rubbish is sent to landfill – and spend around a fifth of that on reducing waste.
The Victoria government alone has a sustainability fund of more than $1 billion but it has spent just $37 million in the past financial year to fix the troubled recycling sector.
It is seeking submissions to its parliamentary inquiry into recycling and waste management.
Similarly, the NSW government has been lashed for planning to invest only 16 per cent of the $2.1 billion it will raise from levies over the next four years into reducing waste.
“That $1.5 billion has already been collected,” Shmigel says of the state levies. “Between state and federal governments, they have the power to solve the problem – they just have to agree to do so.
“Ultimately, it’s about cabinet dynamics and it’s about environment ministers needing to run strong arguments in cabinet and convince their colleagues.”
What is business already doing?
Mining magnate Twiggy Forrest, who champions a reduction in marine pollution through his philanthropic Minderoo Group, is lobbying for a global tax on the polymers used to make plastic as a disincentive for businesses to make new plastic when they could be going with the recycled option.
Forrest says the tax would make manufacturing from recycled plastics more competitive in terms of cost, help reduce stockpiles of recyclable materials and cut plastic pollution, particularly at sea.
“This is a huge threat to the world and in the developed world, we have done a terrible job of regulating it and now 1.5 billion people in Asia have little practical option but to throw their plastic into the environment,” he said in May.
“We need a system-side approach to dealing with this and we have five years at most to address it before it becomes a total environmental disaster,” he told the Australian Financial Review.
Shmigel agrees that building the cost of recycling a product into its initial manufacturing is a fundamental step forward and unlikely to make items substantially more expensive, based on Australian Council of Recycling modelling.
Some companies have started doing this in response to consumer sentiment, although there are concerns that, in some cases, it may be lip-service. (Most of the global companies behind a high-powered “alliance to end plastic waste”, for example, also have billions of dollars invested in plastic production in the next decade and many are setting up new plastic-production plants, The Guardian has reported.)
Qantas meal boxes were made of biodegradable sugar cane, and cutlery was made from crop starch.
Coca-Cola Amatil announced in April that by 2020 it would make 70 per cent of its plastic bottles sold in Australia from recycled materials, an increase of close to 50 per cent on its current rate, the AFR reported. Shmigel says it remains to be seen whether Coca-Cola would source those materials from Australia or from overseas, and therefore whether it would help reduce our stockpile.
Qantas, which admits it produces the equivalent of 80 fully laden Boeing 747s per year in waste, set a precedent with its first “waste-free” flight on May 8. Meal boxes were made of biodegradable materials produced from sugar cane, and cutlery was made from crop starch.
“These products will be turned into compost and used in gardens and farms across the country,” said Qantas domestic CEO Andrew David. “Any plastic items such as bottles or any paper items [such as cups used on the flight] will be collected and recycled.”
Stringent regulations that some multinationals based in Australia must meet overseas have helped drive innovation. Packaging conglomerate Visy Industries is a case in point.
“I’d make the argument that whether it’s Visy or whether it’s the other big players, they’ve actually been carrying the ball up and hitting the line for decades, with a pretty small amount of support from government,” Shmigel says.
Visy collects recycling from millions of homes and businesses across Australia and reuses those materials – such as cardboard, paper, plastic, steel, aluminium and glass – to make new products. It makes drink bottles, for example, at its 100 per cent recycled plastics plant, a first of its kind in Australia.
“Visy’s a great example because it shows us what the future might look like,” says Shmigel. “That is vertical integration: you’re not just collecting, you’re not just sorting, but you’re actually making product. The reason the Visy model works is because they do all of those things, and therefore they can basically balance the different sort of market fluctuations.
“That’s what drives the investment, that’s where the value is: when you’re making things and not when you’re just driving trucks around the street.”
s On its first ‘waste-free’ flight, Qantas served meals in boxes made of biodegradable materials produced from sugar cane.