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Recycling in Australia is in crisis. Can it be fixed?

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Australians take recycling seriously.

We recycled 60 percent of the total waste we produced in 2014–15, according to the latest national waste report.

For most of us, recycling means we put our waste in the yellow-top bin. That is then picked up, taken to a recycling facility and turned back into its basic material — plastic, glass, aluminium, paper.

But it turns out recycling is not so simple, and there are major problems in the Australian industry.

A Four Corners investigation last year and more recent Fairfax investigation found significant amounts of recyclable materials are being dumped in landfill.

And when China stopped taking Australia’s recyclable plastics at the beginning of this year, it became apparent just how dependent our industry was on shipping our waste overseas.

Industry leaders admit Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis, but they also say there are some very simple ways it can be fixed.

Guidelines needed to prioritise recycled materials

Price is the bottom line when companies buy materials, such as glass or plastic for soft-drink bottles, for manufacturing.

Because recycling is a convoluted process, recycled materials are often more expensive than materials made from virgin resources and so are passed over in favour of the cheaper option.

The problem is, price doesn’t take into account the long-term costs associated with using virgin resources.

Plastic, for instance, is made from oil. A European Union report estimates that production of virgin plastic will account for 20 percent of global oil consumption and 15 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Industry experts like Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) president Garth Lamb say there need to be guidelines ensuring councils and businesses prioritise recycled goods over virgin materials, or at least have recycled material quotas.

“We need to be in a position where we’re providing real value to communities, not just trying to do everything at the lowest cost possible.”

Helen Millicer, who is currently using her Churchill Fellowship to research circular economies in Europe, agrees.

She says if we stimulate the market for recycled materials in Australia, the industry that is already here will invest and expand, ultimately diverting more of our waste from landfill.

“We need to establish market pull, that’s the first thing,” she said.

Councils, governments need to lead the way

The idea that there are hundreds of thousand of tonnes of glass sitting in stockpiles or being sent to landfill has Mr Lamb and others in the industry tearing their hair out.

Glass they say, should be the easiest to get right.

When glass is recycled it is broken down into sand. According to Mr Lamb, despite council contractors around the country having huge stockpiles of glass, council road projects are still using virgin sand as road base.

He said that it’s often a case of councils having no idea what resources are sitting in their contractors’ collections depots, and there’s no incentive to enquire.

“Obviously, if on one side of your business you need sand and on the other side of your business you’re making sand, you ought to be able to do a deal,” he said.

“If we can’t get glass right, then there’s something seriously wrong with the focus on recycling in Australia.

“It’s an apathy issue — people just don’t care enough to bother trying.”

Prioritising recycled materials needs to start with councils, government and business, and according to Ms Millicer, needs to be specified in project tenders.

“There’s no point separating it into the right bin unless you’re going to buy it back,” she said.

Disruption to single-use model needed

Like most experts, Jenni Downes from the University of Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures thinks the China ban is the disruption the industry needed.

“Those disruptions have a great deal of pain first. There will be problems, but there could be great solutions,” she said.

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