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An Update on the Australian Recycling Crisis

5 June 2018 at 8:24 am
Estelle Stathoulis
While the urgency to come up with a solution to our current recycling crisis is high, Australia needs to step up instead of side-stepping with band-aid solutions.

Estelle Stathoulis | 5 June 2018 at 8:24 am


An Update on the Australian Recycling Crisis
5 June 2018 at 8:24 am

While the urgency to come up with a solution to our current recycling crisis is high, Australia needs to step up instead of side-stepping with band-aid solutions.

From the rubber cuppy, to the clean up collective, Pro Bono News has reported on Australians doing their part to help out with the current recycling crisis.

Yet, Australia currently finds itself in great need of drastically changing its recycling methods to keep up with the rest of the world on a grander scale.

Consider the below scenarios surrounding the recycling crisis:

  • Over half (51 per cent) of all Australian household waste is made up of recyclables. To put this in context, this is on par with several northern European countries but is significantly higher than the overall European average of 9 per cent.
  • Just last year, the Australian media reported on the stockpile glass industry crisis where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of glass aren’t being recycled. It’s a common misconception that all glass can be recycled yet the recycling industry keeps receiving glass items that they have no method in place to dispose of.
  • According to the Australian Recycling Sector, “the recycling industry generates more jobs per tonne of waste recycled than per tonne of waste sent to landfill, potentially providing 0.15-0.3 per cent of Australia’s jobs”.
  • Businesses are directly contributing to the recycling crisis as at the moment it’s cheaper to dispose of recyclables with normal rubbish together in landfill.
  • Australia has been heavily reliant on shipping our excess of hard rubbish to China, however as of this year, China stopped taking Australia’s recyclable plastics making it impossible for Australia to ignore the fact that it needs to find a way of handling the 600,000 tonnes of rubbish it was previously offloading.

Pro Bono News spoke with Jenni Downes, a research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), at the University of Technology Sydney, who attributes the recycling crisis in large part to the China ban, which has impacted Australian household waste in particular.

“One of the reasons we’re in this situation with China is because of how contaminated our recycling is; this means how much rubbish is in with the recycling or how many different types of plastics are recycled together before being sorted,” Downes says.

Prior to this decision from China, recycling companies would take materials from the councils and sell it internationally to make money to recoup their costs.

“What’s happened now is China’s decision has changed the price that recyclers can get for their materials, and part of that is because they can no longer sell it to China who historically has been paying more than other places were… and is now trying to recover some of those costs from local councils,” she says.

Several countries around the world have invented interesting ways of handling excess recyclables.

Take a tip from Sweden:

Swedish households recycle nearly 100 per cent of their household recyclables.

Their recycling methods have proven to be that efficient that in 2016, Scandinavia ran out of recyclables thanks to their environmentally friendly methods of burning them down:

  • Before the burning process they separate any metals and put those aside to reuse.
  • The actual smoke caused from this burning process does not impact the environment harshly: it’s 99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide mixed with water which then gets filtered further through dry filters.
  • The sludge caused by these dry filters is recycled and repurposed to refill abandoned mines.
  • Any remaining recyclables that don’t burn, such as porcelain and tile, enter a sift which they use in their gravel for road construction.
  • The remaining 1 per cent of unused porcelain and tile goes into rubbish dumps.

China – Building tiny homes out of recyclables:

Among other solutions, a company in China has found a way of building recyclable tiny homes using a 3D printer where the “ink” is made from recycled fibreglass mixed with concrete.

These houses take just over one day to build and cost less than $10,000 to create.

This innovative way of building houses not only prevents all reused plastics from ending up in landfill, but is also an accurate way of providing low-cost and sustainable housing to those who can’t afford it, concurrently tackling the issues of recycling and the rise of homelessness.

Australia is currently in discussion about what can be done to solve the problem with a number of possible solutions being circulated.

Increase the levy towards landfill

The Australian Recycling Sector is predicting that a rise in this levy will inspire businesses to make recycling a priority.

Last year, Greenpeace wrote an article announcing that every bit of plastic ever created still exists as plastic recyclables can take up to 1,000 years to break down in landfill.

They illustrated ways of decreasing the amount of plastics Australian’s use on a daily basis as a way of decreasing the amount of plastics that end up on our oceans: if it doesn’t exist in the first place, we won’t need to recycle it at all.

Waste to energy incineration

Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg is pushing for Australia to adopt an environmentally friendly form of burning our recyclables in an effort to tackle the urgent issue of what to do about the current crisis in light of China’s recent decision to no longer accept our recyclables.  

Downes says it seems logical to choose incineration over sending these materials to landfill.

“The issue is the infrastructure you’d need is quite a huge investment and these facilities often operate for 50 years,” she says.

“They basically say, ‘well we’re going to build a facility that’s this big, to deal with this much waste,’ and then you have to send that much waste to the facility for 50 years, regardless of if you have something better to do with it.

“So what you’ve done is made a short-term problem into a long-term problem.”

Instead, Downes suggests investing into a circular economy for our recyclables.

“We want this circular economy where we’re limiting the amount taken out of the ground as much as we can, and keeping what materials we have flowing through this circular loop where we use it to pass on to someone else to break down and re-transform,” she says.

“The idea of incineration is something we would consider a step backwards, in the sense that incinerating waste instead of recycling only recovers a small proportion of the energy that went into producing those materials.

“When you’ve incinerated it once and used it it’s gone… whereas when you recycle it you not only reduce the energy used but recycle some of the virgin materials which can then go back into the system and have the capacity to recycle sometimes a number of times and sometimes indefinitely.”

Conscious consumerism:

Australian Ethical wrote a report last year about the rise of conscious consumerism and its importance, assuring readers that being conscious and knowledgeable about the products you’re buying as well as how you consume products can and will inspire change.

Educate the public further:

Following a recent decision by the Queensland government to ban recycling altogether, which they later went back on, it was brought to light that people don’t really know what belongs in the recycling bin and what doesn’t. What’s more, items that belong in recycling sometimes end up in the bin too.

According to Sustainability Victoria, this education needs to start in schools with future generations to acheive the best possible results.

Downes believes Australian households need to improve the way that they recycle.

“When we say high quality recycling, it’s well-sorted recycling, meaning all the different types of plastics are sorted in their separate piles, all the different types of paper are sorted into their different piles,” she says.

“And that sorting process – whether it’s done by residents in their house before they put it in the bin or done at the factories once the bins have been collected – needs to be improved.”

Downes also believes businesses need to be encouraged to use recycled materials to create their products.

“One of the challenges is, because that’s a new process, it requires an investment upfront. So initially to do that, it actually costs more than taking the raw material out of the ground because we’ve been extracting that material for so long and it’s a very efficient and cheap process,” she says.

“Financially for the businesses buying the products, because all the costs are externalised onto the environment, the business doesn’t have to pay for those. With recycling they actually have to pay a higher price initially because the system is quite small.

“The more it happens, the cheaper it will get in the long term but you still need to find the money in the short term to make that happen.”

What is clear, is that the days when milk cartons, cereal boxes and empty plastic food containers are lumped in with food scraps, glad wrap and everyday rubbish, are long gone.

Maybe you’re a diligent recycler who assures your rubbish and household waste is correctly categorised, or maybe you’re the occasional recycler who gets lazy if there’s glad wrap stuck on the bottom of an empty strawberries punnet and you flippantly toss this in with the rest of your rubbish.

Maybe you’re the recycler who has no idea when to recycle so you sneak out early on bin day to do a quick check on your neighbours to see what colour lids are filtering through your street.  

Whichever category you fit in to, recycling is a necessity of everyday life, now more than ever, and we can all do our part to contribute to a positive solution.

As Downes puts it: “There’s the opportunity to step forward but there’s also an opportunity to step backwards or to kind of step sideways and find ourselves in this position again.”

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  • Ella says:

    Great article, Thanks

  • Cecil Benjamin says:

    The missing link in this article, and generally is local Councils. They are the organisations that collect all the household waste, in the cities. Councils need to provide better facilities for the collection of waste and recyclables. For example, in Sydney City Council area each household is only “allowed” a small container for recyclables which causes the householders to put recyclables into the waste. Then all the “takeaway” food businesses and their waste-making packaging – the opportunities for recycling are almost endless. There has to be a will to make recycling happen.

  • Jeff Triplett says:

    Your paragraph about Sweden is a bit confused. Rubbish burning is the opposite of recycling!
    Last time I was in Sweden was nearly 20 years ago but for at least 15 years before that they a system called “source sorting” whereby the consumer sorts their recyclables into paper, plastic, coloured glass and plain glass. Needless to say they also had a drink container deposit scheme with deposits up to 50c depending on the container. Obviously superior to Australia’s system where they are all mixed up together. (Although not as good as that Japanese village that was on the news once where they have to sort into 30 different bins.)
    Non-recyclable rubbish is generally burnt in co-generation plants which produce electricity, with the waste heat being piped to heat homes.


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