Don’t blame government for the recycling crisis

As the shutdown of major recycling company SKM has illustrated, recycling is not free.

Don’t blame government for the recycling crisis

Don't just blame government and business for the recycling crisis – it begins with us

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

As the dramatic shutdown of major recycling company SKM this week has illustrated, recycling is not free.

Householders in Australia pay council rates for a recycling and garbage service. This fee is largely based on the costs of collecting, sorting and processing, and – importantly – what returns are likely from selling the end product.

However, since 2017 the price on the open market for mixed plastics has plummeted from about A$325 per tonne to A$100 per tonne. Mixed glass actually dropped to a negative value, which meant that generators were potentially paying for it to be taken away.


Read more: Indonesia has sent Australia's recycling home – it's time to clean up our act


On the other hand, prices for high-quality recycling (not mixed materials or items contaminated with food, for example) largely remained the same or slightly increased.

This shows the market for low-quality, poorly sorted recycling, which Australia has previously offloaded to China and other Southeast Asian countries, is ending.

Unless we improve our recycling industry, we must start sending more recyclable material to landfill – as is happening now in some Victoria councils.

So what can we do about it?

Reduce first

Reduction, fundamentally, comes before recycling. We need to avoid waste to begin with, in our homes and businesses.

As consumers, we should be vocal about seemingly contradictory practices by businesses. For example, supermarkets congratulate themselves on reducing plastic bags, but then use small plastic toys as marketing tools – not even making them out of recycled plastic. These toys are destined for disposal, potentially contaminating recycling streams, and not all consumers are happy.

Throw out recycling properly

It’s tempting, if you don’t know whether something is recyclable, to simply put it in the yellow bin and assume someone on the other end will “sort it out”. But in reality, incorrectly recycled material can contaminate entire loads of otherwise valuable and useful recyclables, diverting it to landfill.

Councils blame the recyclers for this, who blame the councils. Everyone blames state governments, and they in turn blame the recyclers.

Fundamentally though, we as the generators of waste must assume a high degree of responsibility. We are the ones putting contaminants into the recycling system that everyone else in the management structure must deal with.


Read more: Australian recycling plants have no incentive to improve


It’s our job to familiarise ourselves with what can and cannot be recycled – although, to be fair, this can vary widely from council to council, and should be made easier to check.

If we can clean up the recycling streams, markets should increase and prices for these commodities will similarly rise. This encourages those in the sector to improve their plant technology, and for others to enter in what would then be a more competitive market.

Develop the industry

Clean recycling still requires an established market to be profitable. Governments, as the single largest purchasers in Australia, can play an important role here.

The Victorian government has already committed to helping government agencies increase recycled content in their purchasing requirements. Other governments are doing likewise and this is a very positive step.

At a minimum, contracts and tenders should specify a certain level of recycled materials used in products sold to the government, or prefer those suppliers who do have recycled content.


Read more: We can't recycle our way to 'zero waste'


One innovative approach where governments can use their purchasing power is with the use of plastic and glass recyclables in roads. Trials have been extremely positive.

In fact, the Australian Council of Recycling has suggested that using recycled material in construction for the Snowy 2.0 scheme would consume all the recyclables generated in Australia.

We need to chew and walk gum

The most important message is, just as there’s no single person or sector to blame for Australia’s dismal recycling situation, there’s no single solution. We all need to take more care with what we put in the bin. Governments around Australia should incentivise local manufacturers to use domestic recycling.


Read more: Why you're almost certainly wasting time rinsing your recycling


Recycling companies should certainly improve their technology so they can produce higher-quality material, which can be sold at a profit.

And, as the current SKM debacle illustrates, governments need a plan B when the market breaks down.

Even with all of this, a sustainable domestic recycling industry is some way off. We urgently need to start doing the things we already know will work, rather than playing endless rounds of a pointless blame game.The Conversation

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    COMMENTS

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    dorothy
    8th Oct 2019
    10:24am
    why are we buying bottled water,disposible napkins ,just some examples, and all this garbage in the first place
    Cowboy Jim
    8th Oct 2019
    11:49am
    Recently saw 20 piece cartons for 600 ml bottled water for sale for less than $10. $4 should given back when recycling. No wonder people buying bottled water instead of refilling them with tap water. People on artesian bore water might have an excuse but not the majority of the Aussie population.
    ozirules
    8th Oct 2019
    1:04pm
    Cowboy Jim I fail to see the need to carry a bottle of water everywhere whether from the tap or purchased. I marvel at the power of advertisers to convince people to buy what is virtually free in every home. Either that or we've bred a generation of dried up people.
    dorothy
    8th Oct 2019
    10:24am
    why are we buying bottled water,disposible napkins ,just some examples, and all this garbage in the first place
    Baz
    8th Oct 2019
    12:20pm
    Of course everyone should be more particular about recycling but the government is still largely to blame by not forcing business to be more responsible by using only recyclable product & maybe give them tax incentives as well as fines for not following.
    KSS
    8th Oct 2019
    1:00pm
    So it's the Government's fault that residents in my unit block are too stupid to put their sauce smeared cardboard pizza boxes in the red bin instead of the blue bin, who put plastic bags full of newspapers in the red bin instead of the paper in the blue bin and the bags in the red bin (or take them to the supermarket for recycling of soft plastic); put their beer cans and wine bottles in the blue bins instead of the yellow bins conveniently carried there in the cardboard box they came in? No amount of signage, letters, graphics on the bins makes the slightest difference!

    No individual responsibility comes first. Sadly there is not much of that these days. So much easier to blame someone else and expect 'others' to fix it.
    AutumnOz
    8th Oct 2019
    2:17pm
    I agree with you KSS.
    Life was a lot easier when aluminium cans could be taken to a pick up points and cashed in, same with deposits on glass bottles.
    Newspaper was used to wrap rubbish for the garbage bin or to protect the soil from drying out in the vegetable garden.
    Plastic wasn't used in our household so I don't know what happened to that. Apparently plastic bottles cannot be sterilized so cannot be reused.
    Jenny
    8th Oct 2019
    2:30pm
    KSS, you are right about personal responsibility. Too many people are just plain lazy, and can't be bothered sorting their waste properly. I don't know what can be done about that, or about the fact that so many buy bottled water and soft drinks in plastic bottles. I could hark back to the old days before plastic became available to the masses, but that won't help, and I can't see plastic manufacturing being phased out any time soon. Australia is going to have to process it's own recycling, we can't fob it off to some third world country on the cheap, and the manufacturer of the product and the user will both have to pay for this by a levy on the product.
    Horace Cope
    8th Oct 2019
    12:30pm
    Back when I was young, each household had a small, galvanised iron garbage bin which was collected weekly. Groceries came in paper bags which were used to pack lunches. Meat, fruit and vegetables were sold as individual items, not packaged in bulk in plastic containers. Now, we can't go back to those days but surely the packaging on items can be reduced to try and eliminate some of the waste.

    Glass bottles have been crushed and used in road base so maybe this can be increased. Singapore and Japan burn a lot of their rubbish to generate electricity in incinerators which emit very low pollution. I note that a company wanting to do this in Australia has been knocked back by the local council without a full investigation so maybe we should stop listening to the vocal minority and have a closer look at this method of disposal. It's not like the garbage tips of old that used open fires to burn rubbish, it's a lot more hi-tech than that.

    The federal government we have was voted in by the silent majority, not the vocal minority so maybe what we need is for people to speak out about what is needed and ignore the gibes and cat-calling of the zealots promoting so-called climate change. We keep quiet because it's easier to do that than be abused by the zealots who can't see that although there is climate change, the world won't end in three years and man has a very, very small impact on climate change.
    AutumnOz
    8th Oct 2019
    2:09pm
    A lot of the blame rests with the people who collect recycling as it is all tipped into the same space inside the truck.
    Local councils are also to blame for not notifying residents what can, and cannot, go into the bin.
    I doubt most households need all their recycling picked up every week, if the paper, plastic and glass were picked up on seperate weeks per month the recycling would already be sorted and would only need to be recycled.
    To save money there is only one person on the truck, if another person was added to check what was in the bin before it was tipped into the truck the problem would be solved.
    However there will always be lazy people who refuse to co-operate as they may miss a few minutes on social medial or Netflix etc.
    Janus
    8th Oct 2019
    2:09pm
    I know that the vast majority of people don't understand the big picture of the environmental systems we live in, nor would they reduce their standard of living by a tiny bit to make a significant change.

    Some idiot recently said they would attack the waste problem at the source, and mentioned councils as the target. The source is our over-bloated population, and the materialists that we have become. I simply don't care any more, because nothing will change to make thing better for the world, as long as we maintain our attitudes.

    The problem is actually too hard for most people to comprehend. Remember that half of the population is below average intelligence, and be very frightened, and feel sorry for our progeny.
    musicveg
    8th Oct 2019
    7:33pm
    And why do you think that half the population is below average intelligence? Anything to do with the crap they keep putting in their bodies?
    Hasbeen
    8th Oct 2019
    3:32pm
    There are very few materials that can be recycled effectively.

    The greenies did a very good promotion talking everyone into trying to recycle what is actually garbage. Reduce the range of things we are trying to recycle, & chuck the rest into landfill.

    If someone wants to harvest the methane produced in that land fill, & can do it without subsidies, great, let them. If someone can sort the combustibles & burn them to produce electricity, great, let them do it, but without subsidies.

    Other wise chuck the garbage where it belongs, & stop listening to make believe Greenie fairy tails.
    Mondo
    8th Oct 2019
    4:56pm
    I don't agree and I dispute the claim that the rubbish stream begins with us the consumers. It's hardly possible to buy anything today from any retail store that is not encrusted in plastic in one form or another. Numerous hardware items are encased in plastic, we used to be able to buy the number of screws, nuts and bolts we wanted now its all in plastic; batteries are packed in plastic, there is nearly as much plastic in the packaging as in the toothbrush it encases. Prepared foods and drinks including milk are packed in plastic which used to be in re-washable or recyclable glass. Laundry products are increasingly in plastic rather than recyclable cardboard boxes. We choose products in glass or card by preference but the choice is steadily diminishing. Why can I buy fish, bacon or ham in the supermarket wrapped in paper but meet is packed in a central location in plastic trays further wrapped in more plastic. Bread is packed in plastic, sometimes double bags. Many items packed in plastic could just as easily be packed in natural, recyclable cellophane film. The list goes on and on. Stay in a public hospital, food is invariably served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery and plastic cups all for quick disposal; is the writer suggesting we have a choice in this? Stay in a hotel there is rarely a separate recyclable waste stream for disposal as there are in many overseas hotels.
    Most of us grew up when plastics hardly existed, certainly not for packaging and we could manage without much of it again. The real driver towards plastic packaging is not consumers but low service retailers who want to employ minimum staff and demand packing to suit their method of retailing and therefore pressurise the manufacturers and wholesalers to follow suit.
    Councils could be far more explicit and explain why certain items can't be put in the recycling bin. For example why are aluminium cans accepted but old aluminium saucepans and frying pans less handles are not? Why are steel cans accepted but other steel items aren't? What do we do with the low energy highly toxic light globes the government mandated?
    Australians are big per capita consumers of 'stuff' compared to many countries. If our governments had decent economic policies they wouldn't need to keep driving consumption (most of it made overseas) to keep the economy afloat. This would substantially reduce the waste stream. I accept that some consumers are irresponsible in the way they sort and dispose of waste but the solution is surely to reduce the amount of packaging waste at source, surely even a university professor realises that this is the point of manufacture, not the point of consumption?
    musicveg
    8th Oct 2019
    7:27pm
    It starts with your purchasing choices, buy in bulk where you can saving on packaging, educate yourself on what can be recycled and where.k Why buy bottled water, if you don't like the taste of the water that comes out of a tap get a filter. One thing I noticed when looking up my council recycling info is they tell you to put the plastic bags in the landfill bin instead of taking it to redcycle at the supermarkets. I rarely put my landfill bin out for collection.
    Katie
    8th Oct 2019
    7:38pm
    Trevor Thorton - one thing you haven't addressed is the labelling of recyclables. There is no uniform indicator of whether something is truly recyclable or not. Some cardboard has images of don't throw it but bin it - turns out they are not recyclable as most McDonalds/KFC packaging. The various triangles with numbers in them - most mean they are not recyclable. Some cardboards have the triangle but are covered in waxed paper which suggest they are not recyclable. So first step is a A.S. for all packaging both here or imported that shows whether it is clearly recylable or not. Additionally, councils pretend something can go into recylable; but then you find out they don't actually recycle certain things. No one tells the householder. There's the dilemma when products with multiple components of a product are recyclable and others not. But no indicators of this. Consumers are not mind readers. Labelling needs to be consistent uniform comprehensive and backed up with a website for us to lookup whether the symbol means recyclable. If the consumer is confused, then it says a lot about the administers of the system!!! There's room for improvement on all sides; but lets start with clear education with proper detail.
    musicveg
    8th Oct 2019
    8:09pm
    The resources are already in place to learn what can be recycled or not, start with you local council website, they should also produce in it pdf or paper form a list with diagrams, ours does. Then look up all the codes on the internet which tells you what numbers are what and if they can be recycled. There is also some other companies like redcycle and tetracycle you can look at for more information. I think we basically need to make better purchasing choices, I discovered recently that Glad are now producing plastic bags from biodegradable plant materials. As more big companies take a stance on the waste products we will see good changes happen and hopefully reduce landfill in the process.
    MICK
    8th Oct 2019
    9:04pm
    Not blame the government? Why not?
    When a refund on cans and plastic bottles appeared they DISAPPEARED. Problem solved and user pays. Same price once you and I collect the refund!
    Same deal for other rubbish if the powers that be behaved like real governments.

    The other side of this is human behaviour. We do not recycle properly and the system we have, as poor as it is, is routinely ignored by dirtbags who don't care. These are likely the same grubs who toss their rubbish out of car windows and litter our roads as well. The solution: use cameras to check rubbish and if found to be irregular then inspect next collection, fine and warn that their bins will be removed if they are caught doing same again. All but the completely ignorant will comply. Those who don't can then be come after and forced to tow the community line lest they are fined into bankruptcy or have their handouts removed. There are ways...even if these are unpleasant. Just ask people in Singapore what they think of their spotless city!
    musicveg
    8th Oct 2019
    9:26pm
    I have always wondered how Singapore managers to keep so clean. We do need cash for cans nationwide, most states are on board to introduce it but a couple are lagging behind. We need to keep the pressure up and keep emailing the decision makers. I think the manufactures of goods need to take some responsibility of the waste they produce from making their products and what they put them in, why should their packaging which they make millions in profit from be allowed to trash the planet at not cost to them.
    Farside
    9th Oct 2019
    7:44am
    Begin charging the manufacturers and importers for the full life cycle of the product and watch how quickly a solution to clean up, collecting and recycling the product waste will emerge. Naturally these costs will be embodied in the product and passed down the supply chain giving some manufacturers an advantage that will ultimately influence how consumers choose products they buy.
    musicveg
    9th Oct 2019
    8:27pm
    Yes it is a good solution but would it be implemented without more cost to buyers? Or less profit for CEO's and shareholders? I still think purchasing power is what we need to make use of more too.


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