Author: Carol Warwick
The waste and recycling industry has been under the spotlight recently causing Australians to ask “Should we keep recycling?” Planet Ark says yes, and this is why.
The recently released Australian National Waste Report 2016 states that in 2014–2015 Australians produced about 64 million tonnes of waste, the equivalent of 2.7 tonnes per capita. This includes approximately 565kg of municipal waste per capita, collected from kerbsides. The proportion of waste that was recycled in 2014–2015 is about 60%. This is good but Australia’s rates of waste generation and recycling are around average for a developed economy, so more can be done, and when the options of reduce, reuse, repair and refuse are not possible, recycling is still the best option.
Australia is generating more commercial and industrial (C&I), and construction and demolition (C&D) waste, but recycling a greater proportion of it. One of the reasons for Planet Ark’s continuing partnership with Bingo Industries is their industry-leading recycling rates for C&D waste. Their new Auburn plant recovers at least 85% of C&D materials that go through their facility. It still means 15% goes to landfill but there is no better C&D recovery rate in Australia.
The recycling process recovers and diverts materials away from landfills which is important because resources like glass, aluminium, paper and plastic are too valuable to send to landfill. Getting those materials back into the circular economy, by recycling them into new products and materials, benefits the environment and the economy, and reduces the burden on virgin resources.
Every Australian produces waste and the unfortunate reality is, we all contribute to landfill, either directly with our home waste or indirectly through our workplaces and the products and services we purchase. Generally, the recycling and waste industry is doing well in moving materials back to markets but there is more work to do. In an ideal world we would have a fully circular economy, in which waste is considered a resource and used as the input for further manufacturing, rather than using virgin materials with less consumption and packaging, no landfills, and no waste going into the environment. But we have to be realistic about our capabilities to manage our current level of waste production.
If you have separate recycling and general rubbish bins at home, you’ll know there is always some waste that cannot go into the recycling bin. It’s the same for the recycling industry. Until technology in this area advances further and the economics become more favourable, there will be materials which cannot be recycled and have no other viable option than to go to landfill.
Like any other industry, recycling is vulnerable to the fluctuations of the commodities market. The industry’s profit margins are often tight and it has stiff competition from cheap imports. Demand for recycled materials is an important part of the equation. It has been reported that quantities of glass are currently being stockpiled because low cost glass imports make it unviable for manufacturers to purchase locally recycled glass.
Stockpiling (within legislated limits) is a regular and legal practice, designed to store materials, rather than sending them to landfill, until the market price rises and they can be sold and used. Providing it's done safely, stockpiling is not necessarily bad for the environment, but it is not a perfect solution because ideally those materials would be made back into new products. Excessive stockpiling could be avoided through levies on cheaper imported materials, market incentives or recycled content legislation which would encourage manufacturers to buy their materials locally.
If recycled materials are contaminated they can be deemed valueless by a recycler, and sent to landfill, rather than stockpiled. In the case of glass, contamination due to the mixing of different colours is a big barrier to recycling. Glass must always be separated by colour, but this isn’t easy because through kerbside recycling, a glass bottle from one home will be mixed with glass from thousands of other homes, and the risk of contamination is high. This is why container deposit schemes can be so effective — they remove glass from kerbside recycling and process it in a more specialised way.
State and territory governments manage and enforce laws around landfills and waste management. Any form of landfilling must be done safely and legally, and anyone involved in illegal dumping should be called to account. We support the NSW EPA’s firm legislation in this area. If Queensland had a landfill levy like NSW, the issue of the transportation of waste interstate would not exist.
The NSW EPA is leading the country when it comes to investment in waste and recycling with another $337 million to be invested from 2017 to 2021, and states and territories with the lowest recovery rates are improving the fastest and catching up to the highest performing.
Like the ABC’s War on Waste before it, Four Corners’ program Trashed has brought the issue of waste management to the fore, and now major players in the industry, our politicians and the community are talking about it. We see this as a very good thing.
Australia is generating less municipal waste per capita and recycling more of what is generated. Planet Ark believes the emerging circular economy will provide a significant solution to the problem of waste.
There are plenty of positive environmental actions you can take with waste:
Carol worked at Planet Ark in the PR and Media Team in 2017.