This week, the Federal Government announced a major investment into recycling and waste management infrastructure – a promise that was made in the 2019 election campaign. It’s great to see this finally come to light, and yet I think it still ignores the coming recycling bottleneck.
There certainly are some gaps in the infrastructure in Australia – primarily in our ability to process separated materials into an useful form again. This has been done mostly overseas up to this point.
However, with the 2021 Waste Export Ban quickly approaching, many of us can still see the recycling bottleneck getting bigger, and it will NOT be fixed by investments into infrastructure.
The Recycling Process
Let’s think about the recycling process for a moment. For the average consumer, it may appear to end when they put something into their yellow bin. However, that’s only the start of the entire process.
Australia already has sorting facilities in most parts of the country. This is where the various materials are separated by machine (and often times people) into piles that can be bundled and resold to buyers – usually overseas.
The most valuable plastics are clean, single-types of polymers that come from the container deposit schemes and manufacturer off-cuts. The value of the rest of it to buyers depends on how well it can be sorted into individual plastic types and the amount of contamination in it from things like food, debris and even nappy poo.
At this stage, the material buyer needs to clean and then process the material. This means melting it down and then reforming it into flakes, pellets or something like this to become the base material for manufacturing again.
Current Capabilities in Australia
As mentioned, we do have plenty of sorting facilities in Australia – although some struggle to sort plastics efficiently into the different types. We also have plenty of plastic manufacturers in this country with additional capacity – especially after the auto manufacturing industries closed here. We do lack processing plants though, especially for food-grade plastics, and I can see the government investment being useful here.
Nevertheless, some of the current manufacturers are also able to process the plastic. Great companies in Australia like Replas, Closed the Loop and Plastic Forests can take highly contaminated plastics and make it into something useful. These are the companies that are using the plastic from Redcycle bins that you see in Coles and Woolworths, and they too have capacity to grow.
So, if these types of manufacturers already exist, why are we still sending so much of these materials overseas, and how will this government investment make a real difference?
The Recycling Bottleneck
The real bottleneck of the entire recycling process is the lack of demand of recycled plastic products.
Consumers can put their plastics into yellow and Redcycle bins. Council service providers can sort it into various types. Existing manufactures can process and make many products from this waste. But at the end of the day, someone has to buy it. Otherwise, it will just pile up on a warehouse rather than in landfill.
Essentially, there are not enough buyers of these products!
Where Government investment can make a real difference
It’s been an ongoing narrative at the Council, State/Territory and Federal level that they need to change their own procurement policies to help this recycling bottleneck problem.
After all, governments are some of the largest buyers of products like bollards, outdoor furniture and playground equipment, decking and fencing – all common products already on the market made from mixed recycled plastic. And yet, it has been in the “too hard” bucket up to this point.
There are precedents for how this can work in many other places. One that I am most familiar with is with US Government procurement requirement to purchase recycled office paper in all of the agencies. I was a procurement officer for the US Air Force at the beginning of my career, and this requirement showed me how the government could influence an entire marketplace to become more sustainable.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the first guidelines to agencies in 1990 after they and others were successful in creating internal recycling campaigns for office paper. They quickly realised that they needed to help close the loop by buying the very products that they were collecting.
And because the US Government essentially bought 2.5% of all the office paper in the country, they instantly created a more sustainable, competitive marketplace for recycled office paper overnight – just with this one decision.
Did it cost more for recycled paper than virgin? Initially, yes. However, that quickly changed as the demand went up and more competitors started offering recycled options. That’s the power of government spending. It can literally change markets overnight if used in this way.
Recommendations for Government
Rather than using this modernisation fund completely on capital improvement projects, the government should also consider the downstream impacts that they are creating with the export ban and infrastructure that already has more capacity than demand.
Instead, wouldn’t it make sense to spend a little bit more on a longer-life, recycled plastic bollard now rather than wood? This investment will still create more jobs, but at least we won’t see stockpiles of processed material with no place to go in a year’s time.
After all, a more efficient waste management and recycling system will only create a bigger bottleneck until this material has some place to go.
As I continue to put more energy into our Harvestcare aluminium packaging line, my podcast interviews are continuing to confirm how uncertain times are for recycled plastic.
Yesterday, I had a teleconference with one of the government agencies I have to go through to get our annual Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day approved. I explained how that event was needed more than ever as more people are congregating outside and yet less likely to pick up rubbish because of the Covid-19 crisis.
In the grocery stores and cafes, reuse is being restricted to mitigate the risk of this virus spreading. But sometimes this doesn’t necessarily make any sense. For example, some places are banning reusable shopping bags when it’s much more controllable to wash your bag than to assume that single use bags sitting at the check-out all day are safer.
At the same time, there are some micro forces that can also impact the industry. This includes the price of oil falling into negative territory. As plastic is a derivative of oil, virgin plastic will become considerably cheaper than recycled plastic. This will make it even harder to find uses for recycled plastic when most businesses are just trying to survive right now.
It’s unfortunate that in a few short months, so much work and momentum to reduce plastic waste is suddenly being reversed by market pressures. At the same time, nothing has changed about the fundamental problems with plastic. It will still take centuries to degrade, and now there’s even more out there as personal protection equipment is being found in bulk in waterways in some countries.
As an entrepreneur in this industry, I can only try to adapt the best that I can to these uncertain times while maintaining the mission. Quite frankly, that’s all anyone can do.
I reckon that recycled plastic is one of the few inputs where businesses say, “What can I make with this resource?” Everyone else says, “I want to make this product. Now how should I do it?” To better tackle the plastic waste issues, I think there needs to be something in between the supply and demand dilemma – that is…making with purpose.
As I walk around my house and neighborhood, I often think about things that could be made from recycled plastic – an endless resource at the moment instead of what is currently used and often limited i.e. wood, virgin plastic, steel etc.
On my office desk right now, I see my wooden desk, and a plastic calculator, stapler and tape holder. There are pens and markers also made of virgin plastic. I have metal souvenir license plates decorating a file cabinet. Any of these things could have been made from recycled plastic if the maker only designed it that way.
As bushfires continue in Australia, consumers can make a difference for the future.
As much of the east coast of Australia continues to put out bushfires, my hometown of Canberra has been suffering with the worst air quality in the world.
Since September when the first bushfires began for the season, the country has suffered. And since November, I’ve begun each morning by first checking the air quality and then the Fires Near Me app.
So far, we have been the lucky ones in Canberra to only have to deal with smoke. Others have lost much more than clean air. Eventually, when these bushfire threats have passed, we’ll think more about the future including what we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Yet, it’s hard to think about prevention solutions without considering the impacts of climate change. While we may feel powerless as individuals until the next election, as consumers we actually have a lot more power collectively than we realise to create change.
Over the last few months, I have been interviewing entrepreneurs on my podcast, Plastics Revolution. These change makers are using business solutions to tackle the plastic waste issue both by providing options to reduce plastic consumption, as well as to recycle it into products afterwards. Time after time, they’ve reminded me about the power of the consumer dollar in creating change.
While much has been said recently about the environmental impacts of plastic waste, there’s actually a lot of information out there about the carbon footprint of creating it in the first place too. And here lies both an opportunity and a responsibility for those that want to avoid future weather disasters such as the one we are experiencing in Australia right now.
Let’s have a refresher about climate change before I explain this consumer power further.
Climate Change 101
While climate change may be a controversial topic for some, most will agree that “normal” weather is changing.
NASA has well-documented the facts and evidence of climate change here. The most simple explanation regarding these changing weather patterns is that carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere trap heat which increases the earth’s average temperature. Amongst other methods, this increase has been documented from ice core extractions in Antarctica, Greenland and various glaciers.
In an article written by Robert Walker, he warned that Australia could be the canary in the climate change coal mine. Multiple years of drought has made Australia even more susceptible to bushfires during this record-breaking summer heat which is expected for future years to come.
Here and in other countries like the US, it’s tough both politically and economically when your country’s greatest natural assets are also the biggest contributors to creating CO2 – namely the burning of hydrocarbon fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.
Every economy’s vitality is based on growth i.e. the increased selling of its goods and services. Unfortunately, that measurement is traditionally done only with dollars by both businesses and governments alike. This model simply fails to look at the whole of life costs including the impacts to the environment after a purchase is made.
In fact, there can be false measurements of an economy’s strength after a natural disaster. Government relief will often stimulate a location as people rebuild their homes and businesses thereby creating new jobs. On paper, it can actually make an economy look stronger than before the disaster. And yet, a chat with locals will showcase the flaws in the numbers.
Furthermore, measuring prosperity this way does little to incentivise emissions-causing businesses to change their traditional processes when it could hurt their bottom line. That’s where the consumer has the potential to play a much larger part.
So how does this relate to the use of plastic?
Plastics are made of petrochemicals i.e. oil or natural gas, and the process to extract it from the ground, transport it, and turn it into its common resin form takes a lot of energy by burning more petrochemicals.
Looking at this traditional process objectively, the only reason why a business would go to so much trouble is if there are profits to be gained.
A recent study by The Center for International Environmental Law analysed planned expansions of oil and gas infrastructure around the world. It predicts “from 2020 to 2024, oil and gas companies are set to invest a further US$1.4 trillion in new oil and gas extraction projects.” However, even without these expansions, they don’t believe that current operations will enable the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Once again from a business perspective, these investments would not be made if it were not for the potential for profit that’s driven largely from forecasted consumer demand.
While most people think of mining, electricity plants and transportation as the emitters of C02, one article concludes that the full cycle plastics industry creates “almost double the emissions of the aviation sector.” And this only includes plastic products made from extruded pellets, not textiles that are also made from plastics which I’ll discuss later.
How is this possible? The chart below shows the primary uses for plastic. In most of these categories, they are directly link to the average consumer’s buying habits.
How much energy does it take to make a plastic water bottle?
If we break down these categories to something more tangible, it shows the kind of difference that an individual could make with small decisions. For example, in the creation of packaging specifically, an study about the making of single-use, PET water bottles found that:
“Producing bottled water requires between 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per litre, depending on transportation factors. That’s up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce tap water.”
Gleick, P.H. and Cooley, H.S. “Energy implications of bottled water.” Environmental Research Letters 4 (2009) 014009 (6pp).
If enough consumers moved away from bottled water, this would have a measurable impact to the emissions generated in creating the plastic in the first place.
What about our clothes buying habits?
It’s not just with food packaging where consumers can make a massive difference though. It’s also in the clothes that we wear too.
“The fashion industry produces 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.“
Given that any man-made materials such as polyester are also derived from petrochemicals, it easy to see why this statistic is so high. This is especially true with the fast fashion trend that’s created the equivalent of “single-use clothing.”
5 Ways consumers can help climate change by changing their plastic habits.
With the evidence mounting about climate change, as well as the known issue with plastic waste, it’s time for consumers to really put their buying power to use. Here are some ways that you help climate change by changing your plastic habits:
1) Buy more products made from recycled plastics
The traditional method for extracting petrochemicals and turning it into products may seem onerous based on my diagram earlier, but the process is actually easier than manufacturing with recycled plastics. This is because there are so many types of plastics produced, and they often are contaminated with food and other things when disposed. This is why recycled plastic products may be more expensive than those made from virgin products (particularly those made in lower wage countries).
Nevertheless, some of the bigger recycled plastic manufacturers in Australia have figured out ways to create products with this material. Below is the general process that Replas and Plastic Forests use as discussed in previous podcast interviews with their owners.
Notice how their process eliminates the energy required for petrochemical extraction and can reduce overall transportation emissions in comparison to the traditional process. They create the plastic pellets by shredding and melting the plastic which also requires less energy than making it from scratch. Some of these companies also reduce their transportation footprints further when they bypass the wholesaler and go direct to the consumer or retailer.
So, how much cleaner is the recycled plastics manufacturing process than the traditional one?
If looking at the full cycle (cradle to grave – where my diagrams only show cradle to consumer), one study found that “recycled PET bottles offer both GHG emissions and fossil fuel consumption reductions ranging 13% to 56%, compared to fossil fuel-derived PET bottles assuming PET bottles are landfilled.”
Another study by the Nordic Council of Ministers reviewed other publications from around the world and concluded that there was a 37% reduction in emissions generated from the production of recycled plastics (all types) compared to their virgin counterparts. It also showed that there was a 55% reduction in emissions when recycling versus incinerating plastics.
Today, there are increasingly more and more products made from recycled plastics. When given the choice, even if they are bit more expensive, you should buy the recycled option. You’ll help the environment by both reducing the amount of waste that would otherwise go to landfill, as well as reducing the carbon emissions footprint of making the product.
2) Borrow or buy used
Other than potential transportation costs, there really aren’t any carbon emissions generated by an used or borrow item. The cost was already bore upfront in making it and getting it to the consumer the first time. There will, however, be emissions generated if the item is disposed of instead. So, giving something new life is always a better option for the environment than buying new or throwing it away.
Today, there are more and more options for previously owned products even if you if you’re not keen on thrift stores. In Australia, you can rent your wardrobe from GlamCorner, your kids’ toys at Tiny Tots to Hire, and your power tools from Bunnings. If you’re in the US, you’ll have even more options.
Or if you prefer purchasing the product, you can buy second hand even at mainstream retailers like Ikea and The North Face.
The reality is that for many purchases these days, you should always consider a borrowing or second-hand option first if you want to do your part for climate change.
3) Use your non-perishable products longer
Whether it’s clothes, toys or your car, the majority of emissions for any petroleum-based product is generated from the extraction phase to getting it to the consumer. Therefore, when it comes to concerns for climate change and buying something new, you are much better off buying quality products that will last and stay in style longer.
Furthermore, when it comes to quality, pay attention to the materials it made of as well. For clothing in particular, purchasing natural materials such as cotton and wool will help enormously with reducing demand for petroleum products. And if you must buy something with synthetic fabrics, see if you can find it in recycled materials like polyester made from recycled PET bottles or ocean waste. There are plenty of great brands doing this now including Adidas and Filippa K.
While this goes against the low-cost/short-lasting mentality that many consumers have, just remember once again that you are voting with your dollars. Businesses will respond accordingly – whether it be the large petrochemical companies, the product manufacturers or the retailers because it’s in their financial interest.
4) Reduce your plastic consumption
We hear about this frequently as governments around the world are instilling bans on single-use plastic. While the reduction of waste is obvious when you use a reusable coffee cup, bottle, bags, etc – the lifestyle changes also make a difference to C02 emissions as discussed earlier with the water bottle study.
Businesses will only make what consumers are willing to buy, and the flood of reusable containers to the market right now shows that this is catching on by many.
5) Buy Local
Finally, one of the best decisions that consumers can make is to buy locally manufactured products. This may be Australian-made or American-made as an example rather than a cheaper version from overseas.
Transportation can make up a huge percentage of the total carbon emissions generated for plastic products depending on where it is made. So, deciding to buy local is not only good for domestic businesses, it’s also a decision to reduce carbon emissions generated in producing a similar product overseas.
As long as consumers use their dollars to maintain the status quo, carbon emissions will continue to rise as industry responds to our demand. Yet, our environment can’t handle the increasing changes to temperatures. Without significant changes soon, we’ll continue to see more weather-related disasters like we are experiencing in Australia now.
While businesses and industries (and the governments they support) may not respond to public calls for climate change, it’s been shown time and time again that they will change with consumer demand. Isn’t it time to collectively vote with our dollars to do something about this before we are impacted even further?
Dear consumer, the power is in your hands!
Tammy Ven Dange is host of the Plastics Revolution podcast and the CEO of The Refoundry Australia, a social-enterprise dedicated to helping Mother Nature by making great products from recycled plastics. You can find her on social media or on her blog at @tvendange.
There’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of nature. So, over the holidays I decided to take a little walk in nature in New Zealand – one of the most beautiful places in the world. Still, I wondered before I got there if it would have the same issues with plastic waste as other places I have been recently.
I even had a chance to go out for a paddle where we saw Eagle rays and a seal sunning himself on the back of a small yacht.
What I didn’t see was a lot of rubbish which was really surprising, especially in the harbours. Instead, I saw just two pieces: a floating plastic bag that we couldn’t reach and a famous bottle where a tree decided to grow around it.
This was incredible given the number of backpackers and boat traffic we saw there. It could only mean that everyone was doing their part to keep the environment clean.
And it was likely the little things that made a difference. All of our packed lunches were in paper bags (and so were offered shopping bags). I was given a recyclable container for my salad which was of a much stronger material than what you normally see in Australia. Bamboo utensils and paper straws were the norm everywhere. We were encouraged to refill our drink bottles from the taps.
I especially liked the reusable coffee cup the tour operator gave us for our daily morning teas. No council in New Zealand recycles coffee cups. So this was a really nice and practical souvenir.
While I haven’t had a chance to research their recycling situation in New Zealand, overall I have to say that I was really impressed by how clean this part of the country was during my walk in nature. And they seem to have done this by focussing more on the reduction of plastic waste – a lesson all communities can easily adopt.
With this being National Recycling Week in Australia, the common question that is being asked right now is, “Should we still recycle?”
After all the negative media lately on what some shady recyclers have done (i.e. sending contaminated rubbish overseas and/or putting recyclables into landfill as the War on Waste program revealed), it’s not surprising if the general public think it’s a waste of time.
Personally, between my podcast and business, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with quite a few experts in this space and to see recyclers in action. And I can tell you that there are plenty of great companies out there that are doing the right thing. Furthermore, they are making great products from these materials too.
In fact, when interviewing Mark Yates of Replas, I saw the mounds and mounds of rubbish that they were turning into outdoor furniture and industrial products even with high levels of contamination in them at times.
But Australia has Plenty of Land
One common argument to the recycling campaign is that Australia has plenty of land to bury our rubbish. While it may be true that we have plenty of land, how practical and costly would it be to transport thousands of tonnes of waste to such locations every day from metro areas? And think about the additional carbon emissions that would add.
Let’s Burn it Instead
Some say that we should just burn these recyclables instead, but to many in this industry, it’s just like burning money. There were a lot of resources expended to make plastic, and it is still has usable purposes beyond its one-time use.
Furthermore, it practically encourages people to continue to waste these non-renewable resources to keep the incinerators sustainable. Remember, plastic is made from petroleum and cannot be replenished.
But is Burning it for Energy a Better Option?
There are better technologies coming out in this space all the time. However, at the moment, most experts agree that burning rubbish is not a cost efficient source of energy yet. Furthermore, there are still carbon emissions, health concerns and a huge requirement for water with most of these options.
Is there even enough demand for these recyclable materials?
Large recycler, SKM collapsed earlier this year and others are apparently struggling in various parts of the country as the demand for recyclables has fallen. This can mostly be attributed to exports being limited by other countries, but the self imposed export ban by Australia will also add further pressure if that ever gets implemented.
So, should we still recycle?
Absolutely! As long as we continue to make and use plastic, recycling is the most environmentally sustainable and economical way to generate value from this resource.
But it’s important for consumers to know that recycling doesn’t end when you put something into the yellow bin. It’s only recycled when it’s turned into something else, and companies can’t do that unless more people are actively buying Australian made, recycled material products.
There are a lot of rules written by well-meaning people that don’t necessarily make any sense now or perhaps for a given circumstance. This week has reinforced my view that I should follow my gut instinct regardless of the rules when it comes to making decisions for my business. I suppose it’s a privilege of being an entrepreneur, as well as a risk in supporting one too.
As an example, this week I was willing to give up financial support from a sponsor by breaking the original rules that were set for a program. I questioned the rules and decided to go in a direction that I thought was better for my company. Later, I also did a proper analysis to confirm.
The reality was that my gut instincts pointed me in the right direction from the beginning. The analysis only made it easier to explain to others, and fortunately that sponsor decided to stick with me afterwards.
I had just arrived at my parents’ house on Wednesday, and my mother insisted that their curbside recycling bin would take any form of plastic. I was sceptical because in all my research, I hadn’t heard of such a generous recycling program anywhere. So, I looked it up to verify and sure enough, she was right.
Their city website confirmed that Plastics #1 – #7 were accepted in their curb-side recycling bins as part of their mandatory recycling program.
“Wow! I’m really surprised that they can take anything when no other place in Australia or America seems to be able to do this,” I told my father.
“Yeah, but they’re about to change it in terms of what we can recycle,” he said but wasn’t sure what the changes were.
The Future of Recycling
I did a little bit of research to find that the city will no longer require mandatory recycling starting in September 2019. Instead it will only provide it as an optional curb-side pick up for $10/week. Furthermore, while they’ve been taking any form of plastic up until now, they’ll only accept plastics that are clear or white in the future.
Yes, they will now have to pay to recycle far fewer materials!
With my parents on pensions, the extra $520 a year is a pretty big burden especially when the city will no longer accept other materials like paper or glass either. I suspect that they and many others will quit recycling all together because it’s too hard and expensive.
Below shows the reduced list of recyclable materials for them.
On this cross-country trip across the US to visit family members, I’ve found that the smaller towns and cities are struggling the most since China and other countries quit accepting our rubbish as imports. Today, it’s costing the recyclers money to get rid of the materials where they use to sell it for a profit just last year.
This is exactly the problem I feared when I started The Refoundry. Now, I feel the sense of urgency to move forward faster to expand the business into the US.
Question for you: Would you pay to recycle if your city quit offering it for free?
I’m afraid that this may be the way of the future for many places.
I’m travelling throughout the US right now visiting family. Amongst my stops this week was to see my 92 year old great aunt in Kansas. She was no longer able to drive after a fall last year, and so I offered to take her around town to do any errands.
Her first request? She wanted me to help her drop off things to be recycled at three different locations.
They don’t have curb side pick-up of recyclables like they do in many cities in the US and Australia. Instead, if you want to recycle anything in middle America, you have to work a lot harder.
Cans went to a Boy Scout troop. Soft plastics went to to only grocery store in town, and everything else had to be physically dropped off at a drive through warehouse at the edge of Main Street.
I spoke to the guy that helped us at the warehouse. He said that they used to have 6 different satellite collection locations in the surrounding towns, but now they were down to just one.
Because China and the other Asian countries were no longer taking most American recyclables, the materials that they were collecting were practically worthless. The only thing keeping this location from closing was the financial support from their local government.
In so many ways, this demonstrates the even bigger problem that America has regarding plastic waste because of its size. So many people want to recycle, but there is little demand for the materials now.
My plans for The Refoundry are to expand our product lines to the US if all goes well in Australia. After all, the need to do something with plastic waste is not limited by borders. In the meantime, 91% of US plastic is going to landfill despite the efforts of people like my aunt.
Despite her age and inability to drive, she’s still determined to do her part to help the environment. I know there are others, but it’s going to take a huge coordinated effort to turn things around in middle America.
I’ve been visiting family in mid-Western America this last few days, and it’s a bit of a shock to see so little concern about plastic waste here.
At restaurants, there are already straws in the water glasses before I can say no thanks. Every checkout other than Whole Foods gives out single-use plastic bags without concern. In grocery stores, it’s hard to find anything not meticulously wrapped in plastic packaging. Most every online shopping box that arrives at my brother’s house is full of plastic fillers.
On top of that, I found a just released study from the Environmental Protection Agency from 2015 (not sure why it took them so long) that showed only 9% of plastic is being recycled here in America. This is incredibly scary given that Australia has only 7% of the population of the US, but manages to recycled 32% of plastic. That’s still a lot of plastic going to landfills.
With the strong US petroleum industry and the high cost of recycled plastic, there’s little incentive to change without significant consumer demand. That’s why the solution in America that will likely have the biggest impact will be incinerators like the one being made by Sierra Energy. Their technology is meant turn rubbish to fuel or energy without also creating emissions.
Is this a solution that should also be considered in Australia? It already is.
The question isn’t really about which solution (i.e. reduce, recycle or reuse) because all three will likely be needed to help minimise the impacts of plastic rubbish.
Really it’s about changing people – although the hardest to do. This alone will make the biggest difference of all. And in Australia, based on the stats and my observations, it seems so far that we’re more willing to change than Americans when it comes to helping with this plastic problem.