More than ever, the crisis enveloping recycling in Australia has been pushed to the forefront of government policy thought at each level – federal, state and local.
The recent Chinese ‘Green Sword’ ban on importing waste has confronted representatives, ratepayers and recyclers across the country with an unenviable fact: as a nation, we are being swamped with our own rubbish, and we’ve been blithely exporting our problem.
While only a small percentage of what we produce goes overseas – perhaps 5–10 per cent – our recycling industry is so precariously poised that the ban, comprising about 600,000 tonnes a year annually to China, has seen companies here sending recyclable waste to landfill and councils warn ratepayers kerbside collection costs will rise.
It’s within living memory for a proportion of the community to recall being sold biscuits, nails and hardware, meat, fruit and vegetables or other goods by weight, rather than receiving them prepackaged
How did we get to this impasse? Since the end of the Second World War the packaging industry has grown exponentially as self-service supermarkets rose to replace marketplace sales and service stores; as refrigeration meant there was a need for long-term storage options.
It’s within living memory for a proportion of the community to recall being sold biscuits, nails and hardware, meat, fruit and vegetables or other goods by weight, rather than receiving them prepackaged; to receive those goods packaged in containers sought after for reuse elsewhere: cigarette tins for hardware containers, jars for preserves, wooden crates, tin drums and kerosene cans.
With the rise of prepackaging grew an industry and associated lobby groups, who argue packaging is crucial to the economy, accounting for approximately 1% of Australia’s GDP and employing 30,000 people.
The industry has accepted its role in creating the problem, and says it wants to be part of the solution.
But what is the solution to the rising tide of rubbish? One aspect of the theory of a ‘circular economy’ currently in discussion is keeping waste within the cycle of production, a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach rather than cradle-to-grave. Within the idea is the further prospect of the local economy growing through dealing with waste at the local level; of producing and processing at the regional level.
Three advocates for the reduction of waste and the reuse of recyclables locally spoke to The Courier about their vision for a waste-reduced future.
The recycler: Dennis Collins
Dennis Collins’s company Paper Freight Australia was established in Ballarat in 1985. A relentless innovator, his recent experiments into dealing with laminated products such as coffee cup and vinyl are gathering international attention.
He’s a staunch advocate for a local response to the international ban, saying we need to take responsibility for what we produce.
“I think there should be a committee of local recycling stakeholders formed,” says Collins.
“There’s a great opportunity here: for giving the unemployed work; for building a MRF (materials recovery facility) here and in other regional centres, Horsham and Stawell for example.
All packaging should be recyclable. I know the industry is looking at this deeply, they agree we need to move to a circular economy. They do know there’s a problem.Dennis Collins
“Currently we’re sending air to Melbourne to be sorted, truckloads of waste that could be properly sorted here. There would be less loads but more concentrated.
“The price for plastics has crashed, it’s dropped by two-thirds. We lose money on it, so it’s not sustainable.
“All packaging should be recyclable. I know the industry is looking at this deeply, they agree we need to move to a circular economy. They do know there’s a problem.
“If a committee was formed to look at a local solution, I’d like to be on it.”
The councillor: Belinda Coates
City of Ballarat councillor Belinda Coates has worked on the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance, the Clean Ballarat Committee and the Grampians Central West Waste & Resource Recovery Group in her time as a local representative.
She’s acutely aware that the infrastructure for dealing with waste in Ballarat and the local region is both inadequate and ageing.
“Waste has been a low priority for state and federal governments, whereas we’re at the coalface and understand what an important issue it is – economically and socially as well as environmentally.
“What we have in front of us is an issue that has not had attention for a very long time and has got to a crisis point with recycling and the China situation. We've had a really big spike in community and public interest in waste. We’re really just understanding a bit more about we how much we consume as as a society and therefore how much we waste.
"So a bigger investment is obviously something that would assist from federal and state governments, to reboot the recycling industry. But we know from the experiences overseas, where some countries do waste very well, that there is very much a move toward a circular economy, looking very holistically at waste as an issue, not just recycling.
It's quite confronting to acknowledge that it is our responsibility, it's everyone's responsibility. We can't just say it’s just council’s responsibility or it’s one level of government's responsibility. It's everyone's.Belinda Coates
"Whilst recycling is an important part of the waste hierarchy, we we need to look at all elements of it, so we need to look at reducing what we waste in the first place. Bumping up opportunities for re-use, for example, as well as recycling and supporting more innovation in recycling, supporting innovation in changing what we do with packaging.
"You've got COAG calling for massive changes to kick in by 2025 so all of a sudden we've got an opportunity to leapfrog ahead on on innovation.
“It's quite confronting to acknowledge that it is our responsibility, it's everyone's responsibility. We can't just say it’s just council’s responsibility or it’s one level of government's responsibility. It's everyone's: it's the community, it's individuals, it's council and it's it's very much state and federal government as well. So we need to get smarter about it. It’s a crisis but also an opportunity.
“Where Ballarat is really well placed is with the planning that we've done with the Ballarat West Employment Zone. It’s very much planned and set up to facilitate not just an all-waste facility that's based around high level separation to create more valuable products that can be used for recycling or perhaps for other purposes; potentially waste to energy depending on whether there's an opportunity for an improved environmental outcome."
The academic: Trevor Thornton
Deakin University School of Life and Environmental Sciences lecturer Dr Trevor Thornton says the fundamental question about recycling locally is the cost of transporting waste.
“The viability of the recycling stream hinges on the markets. China's ban has tipped it over the edge, so we need to look at it innovatively. We've got to look at it in a broader perspective rather than compartmentalise it into one narrow focus.
Packaging is a fairly big and powerful industry in its own right. You've only got to look at the amount of resourcing that beverage manufacturers have put in to try to counter any container deposit legislation.Dr Trevor Thornton
“Waste to energy is one solution. While the waste may not be viable economically, as an energy source it may be. Reuse and recycle is always better than burning or disposing in landfill. But if we don't have those options, we've got to look at what is next best.
“Packaging is a fairly big and powerful industry in its own right. You've only got to look at the amount of resourcing that beverage manufacturers have put in to try to counter any container deposit legislation. There’s no doubt container deposit legislation works.
“It reduces litter, it increases the recycling of the material and so forth and so it really only set the South Australia is a great example of it working. I've done audits of landfills over there and there are minimal beverage containers going into it.
We've never really thought about waste as a society. We put our bins out. They get emptied, we bring them in. All's good with the world. It’s only when something goes wrong that we start jumping up and down.”