Despite the prime minister’s pledge, there are plenty of challenges facing the country’s waste recovery efforts
By Sarah Martin
Scott Morrison has vowed to take action on Australia’s recycling crisis, flagging creating a domestic industry and an end to exporting waste.
The prime minister is concerned that only 12% of the plastic that Australians put into their kerbside bins is being recycled, and is “angry” the public is being let down.
“The promise to them is being broken and we have to keep that promise,” he said on Tuesday.
The 12% figure is included in a report by the environment department and Blue Environment Pty Ltd last year, which outlines the challenge facing Australia’s waste recovery efforts.
How much waste does Australia produce?
The report found that in 2016-17 Australia generated an estimated 67m tonnes of waste, almost 2,700kg for each person.
Most of this comes from the commercial and industrial sectors and construction and demolition, but about 560kg for each person comes from households and local government.
And each person generates about 103kg of plastic each year.
Nationally we use 3.3bn plastic bags, 2.6bn coffee cups, 2.4bn plastic straws and 1.3bn plastic bottles each year.
Australia produces more than 17m tonnes of masonry waste every year, 14m tonnes of organics, 12m tonnes of ash (from coal-fired power stations), 5.6m tonnes of paper and cardboard waste, and 5.5m tonnes of metal.
Although waste per person is going down, Australia’s population is growing so more is being generated.
How much is being recycled?
Compared with other developed economies, Australia generates more waste than average and recycles less.
About 40% of what is called “core waste” is recycled, but 21.7m tonnes still end up in landfill.
Nationally the recycling rate is 55%, but the results vary dramatically across the states.
South Australia is the best performer, with a recycling rate of 78%; the Northern Territory recycles just 11%; New South Wales 59%; Victoria 68%; Western Australia 53%; Tasmania 49%;Queensland 44%, and the Australian Capital Territory 49%.
What do we recycle?
Recycling rates are highest for metal: 90% is successfully reused. Masonry materials have a recycling rate of 72%, followed by paper and cardboard (60%), glass (57%), organics (52%), ash (43%) and hazardous waste (27%).
Only 12% of plastic is recycled.
This means that each year more than 2,000m kg goes to landfill.
Why does so much plastic end up in landfill?
There are two main problems dealing with plastic waste in Australia: no market and no infrastructure.
New plastic is cheaper than recycling existing plastic, so there is no incentive for manufacturers to use recycled materials.
Australia does not have processing plants like Asia that break the plastic down into flakes so it can be reused for manufacturing.
Soft plastics are often not accepted for recycling by councils, but often end up “contaminating” other plastic recyclables.
And many councils do not offer kerbside recycling, particularly in regional areas.
A government report on kerbside recycling released last year found only half of the 544 councils in Australia have a kerbside collection service that accepts all seven types of plastic, and only 10 local government areas accept all types of plastic and plastic bags.
What about exports?
Australia exports about 4.5m tonnes of waste to Asia each year, more than half of which is metal.
At the Council of Australian Governments meeting last week, the states and territories agreed to end the practice, which means more waste will need to be dealt within Australia.
What can be done?
The Australian Council of Recycling is calling for “big dollars and deeds” to follow the Morrison government’s pledge.
It wants to see financial support for reprocessing and remanufacturing infrastructure to ensure material can be recycled in Australia.
It also wants the government to put in place procurement targets for government spending, particularly on roads, to create a market for recycled materials.
Australia’s plastic recycling rates could improve with government investment in plastics sorting and cleaning equipment to enable onshore recycling.
The government is also being urged to look at the possibility of waste-to-energy projects.
A national container deposit scheme was recommended by a Senate inquiry last year.
What can you do?
Australians following the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – and it is a sound system.
If you would like more tips about how to reduce your waste and save money at the same time, the energy department has a comprehensive list here, and the World Wildlife Fund has 10 tips to reduce your plastic footprint here.
Editors note: While the Coffs Harbour City Council seems mired in a controversial Cultural Centre and New Council Chambers debate the clock has been ticking on a building local waste problem for some time now. But we are unaware of any new initiatives. See this story, titled “Coffs Coast landfills drowning in rubbish” published here late last year; https://coffscoastoutlook.com.au/coffs-coast-landfills-drowning-in-rubbish/
The above story was first published at The Guardian Australia -Tuesday August 13 2019. See: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/how-will-a-domestic-waste-recycling-industry-work-in-australia?CMP=share_btn_link