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Recycling

By Bruce Barbour - December 2020 (updated March 2021)

Victorian Government Strategy Document

Early in 2020 the Victorian Government launched its plan for the future of recycling in Victoria (the "Strategy").

I am not going to go through the Strategy on a line by line basis. I will mainly looking at aspects that I believe will be inadequate and/or could be done better.

Overall the Strategy lacks ambition to actually reduce waste. It states that Australia on a per capita basis generates has one to the highest waste footprints (35 tonnes per person) in the world and is over 40% higher than the United States and United Kingdom. It also states that it is anticipated that 40% (probably gross) more waste will be generated by 2046. Presumably this is a business as usual estimate. The Strategy indicates a goal of 15% reduction of waste per capita - down to 30 tonnes per person! A very modest reduction. This will still leave the waste production from each Victorian much higher that the citizens of the UK and the US. Surely a goal of waste reduction to at least that of the UK should be achievable - if the UK can do it I can't see what is so special about Australia that we must produce all the additional waste. The Strategy should be aiming for a whole lot better - it should be aiming at world's best practice - a whole lot lower than the proposed weak target.

Four Bin Kerbside Collection System

The Strategy proposes the implementation of a 4 bin system for domestic waste / recyclables kerbside collection:
  1. combined food and garden organics;
  2. glass;
  3. combined paper, plastic and metals; and
  4. residual waste.
The system does not specifically mention the recycling of soft plastics. Nor does it mention unusable old clothing - the type that is at the end of its life and not saleable in the second hand market or suitable to be given away.

Soft Plastics

The issue with soft plastics is that the Strategy does not specifically mention how plastic film / plastic bags will be handled. While some single use plastic bags have been banned already - the supermarket shopping bag - this is only partially effective in removing plastic film materials from the waste stream. For example while the single use supermarket bag has been banned shoppers can buy "heavy duty" plastic bags at the supermarket for the shopping. These are supposedly multi-use - if brought back to the supermarket. This article in "The Conversation" indicates that the thicker plastic bags need to be used more than 4 times before disposal to have a better environmental outcome than a single use plastic bag. A US study found that 40% of shoppers "forgot" to bring reusable bags. If this study result is transferable to Australia and the forgetful shoppers all buy new thick plastic bags there would be no environmental benefit from the banning of single use bags. If not done already a local study should be done to determine the actual environmental impact of the single use bag ban and how it can be improved. My own observation is that there is a significant percentage of shoppers that do not bring reusable shopping bags and are unconcerned about paying for purchasing thicker bags each time they shop. It might be determined that it is better environmentally to no longer sell the thicker plastic bag and just charge the recalcitrant shopper 10 to 20 cents for each single use plastic bag (with the money going to charity). They might eventually get the message that they should buy and reuse the polypropylene or other reusable material bags.

The same article indicates that the (usually green) polypropylene bags needs to be used more than 11 times to be better environmentally than single use plastic bags. (My own usage pattern - a sample of one! - is that I use them many more times than that.)

The supermarket shopping bag is just one type of single plastic bag used in supermarkets. There are so many others - bread wrappers, biscuit packets, plastic around toilet paper, plastic around frozen foods, plastic bags for fruit, plastic bags for the delicatessen items, plastic box liners for cardboard breakfast cereal boxes. Everywhere you look in the big supermarkets there are single use plastic bags and containers. These plastic bags are not currently recycled via the current council waste / recyclables collection system. In the dot list above there is an item for plastic collection in bin 3 but the Strategy is not clear that this includes the soft plastics of the single used plastic bag / plastic film. Unless it had been specifically stated I would doubt that it would be collected as there would be technical issues with separating the soft plastics from the paper products that are also placed into bin number 3. Currently a blower is typically used to separate paper out from the recyclables stream. But also blows the soft plastics out as well. (Some references also say that plastic bags jam the rollers in the recyclables separation equipment - but if that is the issue it is just a matter of improving the design so it doesn't occur.) Unless the technology for waste sorting has improved - or more labour intensive manual method are used - soft plastics can't be collected in the same bin as paper products.

If they wanted to collect soft plastics it would be better for them to go in the glass bin (bin 2) or alternatively to collect glass and paper in bin 2 and then soft plastics could go into bin 3 with the hard plastics and the metal.

Redcycle

The big supermarket chains and their suppliers have initiated a small soft plastics recycling / reuse scheme called Redcycle. While I endeavour to use this system it seems to be completely inadequate for the collection and recycling of all soft plastics generated from supermarket sales if the majority of people were to use it. The collection bin that is at the supermarket is very small and as a consequence is often overflowing. It would be interesting to know what percentage of supermarket soft plastic it captures for recycling - I can't find this information on the Redcycle website. Until that data is available and indicates collection percentages significantly above 50% it is my opinion that this scheme is primarily a public relations exercise so that the supermarkets and supermarket item manufacturers can point to it and say they are doing something - inadequate as it may be - about the problem that they are primarily responsible for. It may also be a method for the supermarket and food processors to try to the divert responsibility for soft plastics recycling from them to the public (along the lines of "it is not our fault that soft plastics aren't recycled in greater quantities. It is the fault of the public that don't use the system that we have provided". A classic tactic to divert attention away from the companies' responsibility to actually address the issue.)

To be effective soft plastics must be collected in the Council kerbside collection bin system for recycling - until a better solution to reducing the use of all single use soft plastics is implemented - see container re-use below.

Container Deposit Scheme

The Victorian Government will introduce a container deposit scheme - finally catching up to many other Australian states. A deposit will be introduced mainly for drinks containers - those that are primarily bought when a person is on an outing from home. Often these containers are disposed of carelessly - either thrown on the ground or into waterway as litter or into waste bins that would go to landfill rather than recycling. The container deposit scheme will not apply to many of the plastic containers purchased in supermarkets - which it is hoped will be recycled via the council kerbside bin collection system.

Energy from Waste 

One of the aspects of the Strategy that is concerning is the proposal to support energy production from the burning of waste.

The future of energy production shouldn't be about burning things - anything. It might be sustainable if the "things" being burnt were organic in nature - food waste, paper product, cotton material - but it won't be. With the proposed 4 bin kerbside recycling system it is planned/hoped that organic (including food) waste will be diverted from the waste stream for mulching - and paper product also diverted for recycling. What will be left in the waste stream will be the soft plastics (plastic bags and film which as discussed are not mentioned as being recycled) and dirty paper products and old unusable clothes (again many of them polyester and other synthetics rather than natural materials) and a bit of other stuff that won't burn anyway. The plastic film and polyester/synthetic materials in clothing are straight from the fossil fuel industry and will release carbon dioxide and toxic fumes when burnt. Similarly the synthetics in the unusable clothing should be able to be recycled if collected. And even if they can't be recycled it may be better to simply bury them in landfill than to burn them. At least the carbon in the material will not be released into the atmosphere straight away.

Once these energy from waste plants are built they will demand to be fed for their economic life - much like other fossil fuel electricity generators - or have to be bought out / compensated by Government to be closed down early. The recycling strategy commits to supplying a maximum of million tonnes of this waste per annum for burning until 2040. It is quite likely that this million tonne figure will also be treated as a minimum.

It should also be noted that these plants are often fiercely opposed by the local neighbouring community due to the toxic fumes the plant may generate from its operations.

Container Re-use

Unfortunately the Strategy does not commit to a container reuse system.

As discussed soft plastics are endemic in our supermarkets as is other packaging materials - cardboard, glass and "hard" plastic containers. It would be impossible to shop in a supermarket and not purchase items wrapped in plastic or other packaging materials.

While there have been projects to encourage people avoid single use plastics - such as Plastic Free July - it is my opinion that with the current set up it not practical for the average person to shop without purchasing food in plastics or other single use containers. Now I am sure some of my readers are going to call out that they do it - they go to their local farmers markets and carry their reusable string bags and cook everything from scratch using fresh produce. So it is probably possible. However normal shoppers do not have the time or the infrastructure located close to them to be able to do this this. To have an environmental impact a system has to be readily usable by the mass of shoppers who just want to get the food home and easily cooked. It must be the standard way of shopping.

A scheme such as Plastic Free July may achieve some public awareness of the problem of single use plastic - so in that way it is good. However it can also have the effect of diverting the responsibility for recycling/reuse of single use plastics (and their eventual elimination) away from the companies that created the problem to the individual. Unfortunately individual action - as worthy and welcome as it may be - is insufficient to have significant impact on the problem. Systemic change is required and it seems that the only way this can come about is through government intervention/regulation. A quick review of the Plastic Free July Facebook page indicate that they may have evolved a bit past plastic free July - though individual action is still very much a focus - to more widely addressing issues related to single use plastics such as elimination of plastic straws and cutlery. That is to be welcomed though they should look more at the systemic change that sheets home the responsibility to the companies that sell product in or in other ways use single use plastics.

Ultimately container re-use - where the shopper brings their own containers to the supermarket which are filled in the supermarket - is the only way to comprehensively address the issue of packaging waste in our supermarkets. Everything else is stop gap.

Other Links

The Strategy
https://www.vic.gov.au/transforming-recycling-victoria
https://youtu.be/njZnpfuiknk


Container deposit scheme
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxtjIl3J3d4 Circular economy
https://youtu.be/WFniQ8zJ8ng

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