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.