Shortcuts / 02 March 2023

Australia’s recycling crisis

Plenty of us have a go at recycling – but it turns out a whole lot more than we think is ending up in landfill, despite a bunch of good intentions… So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at how recycling is organised in Australia, why soft plastics are one of our biggest issues, and what we can do to stop a massive waste problem.

Our recycling system has been in the news a bit lately…
Yep, it’s fair to say it’s been creating headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the end of last year, Australia’s largest plastic bag recycling program REDcycle collapsed after it was revealed hundreds of millions of bags dropped off by Coles and Woolies customers were actually being secretly stockpiled and not recycled at all.

It sure shocked a lot of people who’d been trying to do the right thing for years by bringing in soft plastics to the major supermarkets to find out that it might all have been for nothing.

So what happened?
Well, the gist is that REDcycle just couldn’t deal with the huge volume of waste. This all got found out after a major investigation by environmental watchdogs in NSW, Victoria and South Oz. They discovered 8,000 tonnes of soft plastics – so millions of bags – were being stored in warehouses around Oz and were posing a fire risk.

Wasn’t there an actual fire?
There was but it didn’t make national news at the time – back in June, there was a huge factory fire at the Melbourne facility that REDcycle outsourced to. That ended up bringing attention to issues in the whole soft plastics recycling scheme.

So REDcycle has been out of action since June?
Yep, but the company didn’t tell anyone and kept stockpiling the soft plastics. And now the company has been declared insolvent and Coles and Woolies have announced they are taking control of that stockpile.

What are they going to do with it?
It’s a great question because there are more than 12,000 tonnes of rubbish in total. And because of deterioration over time, it’s just not clear how much of that will be able to be recycled, how much might be exported, and how much might end up in landfill.

That’s pretty disheartening… Shouldn’t we be much better at this stuff?
Well, we were back in the olden days…. If you were a little tacker in the 70s or 80s, recycling in Australia used to be fairly simple – you could leave glass milk bottles out to be reused, you could bundle up cardboard or paper and the council would collect that, and you used to be able to get good pocket money out of collecting cans.

And then along came plastic…
That’s right – it became one of the main materials in all of our packaging… And by that stage, a lot more kerbside collection was happening with all the different materials chucked in and sorted at a central facility.

What did we do with all that plastic before REDcycle?
So for years a lot of that waste was sent to China because we didn’t really have the industry to deal with it locally. Then back in 2017, China put its foot down, saying it would no longer be the world’s dumping ground for all the waste. That basically meant Oz had to deal with about 600,000 more tonnes of mixed recycling every year.

But things haven’t exactly improved since then…
Nope – the collapse of REDcycle shows that even 6 years later we still don’t have anywhere near the capacity to deal with everything we are putting in our recycling bins.

So why is plastic such an issue?
Well, let’s take a small area like the ACT as an example. So according to the weight of what goes into people’s yellow bins in the territory, nearly 50% of it is paper or cardboard. The government ships most of that up the road to Tumut in the Snowy Mountains to be turned into craft paper.

Alright, so far so good…
Glass is next on the list, accounting for about 30% of the ACT’s recycling by weight. It gets turned into sand and is sold locally or interstate.

I feel there’s a ‘but’ coming…
You’d be right about that because it’s mixed plastics – that account for 20% of the territory’s recycling by weight – where things start to get really complicated.

Why’s that?
Because no 2 plastics are the same. More than a few of us get pretty confused about what types of plastic are allowed to go in the recycling bin.

Guilty… So what is allowed to go in the recycling?
Well, to return to the ACT example, clear PET plastics – think water bottles, soft drink bottles and fruit punnets – are generally able to be sold into the domestic recycling market. So are milk bottles (except the lids…) and the types of plastics used in cleaning product containers.

What about the ones that aren’t?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of grades of hard plastic – the ones China started refusing – like butter or ice cream containers that might actually end up in the tip because there isn’t anywhere where they can be processed locally.

And what about soft plastics?
Governments have spent millions of dollars trying to educate people to stop putting glad wrap, food packaging and other soft plastic into their recycling bins because it gets jammed in the machines.

What happens now REDcycle isn’t able to take that stuff?
We’re kinda back to square one on that and there really is no clear alternative. And not to alarm you but in 2018, the Commonwealth, states and territories all signed up to a target that by 2025, 70% of our plastic packaging would be recycled or composted.

And how are we doing?
So the last comprehensive report by the peak body had us tracking at only 16% of soft plastics being recycled – and that was before REDcycle went bust…

So there’s a lot of work to do… What can we do about it?
According to Clean Up Australia, most Aussies reckon recycling is important, it’s just that a lot of us are not doing it the right way.

In what way?
So some of the most common items put in recycling bins that shouldn’t be there include plastic bags, broken glassware, batteries, clothing, half-full food containers and paper towels. And when we clog the recycling bin with the wrong stuff it can often mean a whole load of rubbish at a facility gets contaminated and has to be sent to landfill.

So less is more?
Exactly. Clean Up Australia says too many of us ‘wish cycle’, meaning we want to do the right thing and feel better the more we chuck in the recycling bin – when actually this is one of those cases where less is better.

So what else can I do?
The first thing you can do is reduce the number of things you buy with packaging in the first place and use your own bags or boxes for fruit and veg. And where you can’t avoid packaging, consider buying things with the Australian recycling label on them – that will clearly tell you where to put each component of the container.

Anything else?
Another good tip is to choose products where the packaging is easy to recycle like glass or cardboard or to choose products where it says the packaging is made from 100% recycled material.

Will recycling ever get any easier?
Hopefully, companies will respond to growing pressure and create solutions for customers in a pretty short timeframe. Both Coles and Woolies have a goal to make all their own brand packaging 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

And there are already a few cool initiatives around…
There are, and we’ve now got a generation of kids who are leading the way in innovative ideas to keep plastics out of landfill like Lids4kids – that’s collected more than 5 million milk bottle lids and turned them into a bunch of amazing things like mobility aids.

Squiz recommends:

Clean Up Australia’s tips to reduce waste

‘Dow said it was recycling our shoes. We found them at an Indonesian flea market’ Reuters

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