Reusable packaging, container deposit schemes and apps: Is Australia’s waste and recycling sector growing up?

Australia's recycling sector is in the middle of an overhaul, sparked by a major policy shift by China, followed by a policy shift by the federal government and the creation of new recycling targets.

Single-use plastics – like cutlery and straws — have started to disappear while an increased amount of packaging must include recycled material. That means changes for businesses, governments and consumers.

Millions of investment dollars have already been pledged while new and existing processes will help recover more material and stop it from going into landfill.

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How do we sort out Australia's waste problem?

Here's how the national recycling sector has evolved.

China's Sword policy and the Australian response

The global waste industry was turned on its head when China started to roll out its tight restrictions on waste imports — dubbed the National Sword Policy — at the start of 2018.

The decision had major ramifications for the recycling sector and stranded hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste in Australia.

A worker at a scrap metal recycling facility at Tongzhou, Beijing.
In 2018, China stopped accepting 24 categories of solid waste, disrupting the export of more than 600,000 tonnes of material out of Australia each year.(ABC News: Cecily Huang)

In response, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) developed a suite of national packaging targets which were updated in 2020. They take effect in 2025 and include having 100 per cent of packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable.

While 70 per cent of plastic packaging needs to be recycled or composted and single-use plastics will be phased out.

On top of that, the federal government made the call to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. 

"There was actually a Prime Minister who looked at the problem that had been created at state government level and said it's our waste, it's our responsibility and we're going to seize this opportunity for real reform," Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said.

To help the industry meet the demand created by the changed policies, the Recycling Modernisation Fund was established in July 2020. 

Sussan Ley wearing a grey button-up coat and a beige akubra holds her hands out as she explains something
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said there was an opportunity for "real reform" in the recycling sector.(ABC News)

How is the food and beverage industry changing?

To meet the national packaging targets, food and beverage companies have started to change the way they make products. In May this year, more than 60 organisations signed up to a pact to reduce plastic waste across Australia and the region.

Baker Tip Top is phasing out plastic clips which are used to close the top of bread bags. They are being replaced by cardboard versions which are 100 per cent recyclable and made from 100 per cent recycled cardboard.

"We took it on ourselves to search for alternatives. First, something that kept the functionality of the bread packaging — fresh bread is really important — but also delivered a benefit to the environment," Tip Top's Graeme Cutler said.

"I think what we found, ultimately as we roll it out across Australia and NZ, [will] eliminate over 400 million pieces of plastic out of the waste stream and potentially out of the environment. We're really happy where we're at."

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Coca-Cola and Asahi have committed to purchasing about 13,000 tonnes of recycled plastic resin from Australia.

Both brands are partnering with waste company Cleanaway and packaging firm Pact Group, which is building two new recycling plants as part of the deal.

"The whole ecosystem is actually working to have the circular economy," Pact Group chief executive Sanjay Dayal said.

"Cleanaway picks up the waste, brings the waste to our factories. Those factories then convert that waste to recycled resin."

The resin is then converted back into products, like PET bottles for soft drinks and water.

A man wearing a navy suit and pale blue shirt stands on a path in front of a waterway
PACT chief executive Sanjay Dayal.(ABC News)

"Quite a bit of it goes to Asahi and Coca-Cola for them to convert into their own beverage. So once they use that, consumers use that, then it comes back either through their waste bins or the container deposit scheme," Mr Dayal said.

"Cleanaway again picks it up and it just goes around and around."

Where do container deposit schemes and smartphone apps come in?

South Australia was the first state to induce a container deposit scheme in 1977, giving customers get a refund for returning containers.

It has taken decades since then, but now every state and territory has announced its own version or is running a similar scheme.

For recyclers, it helps deliver a cleaner waste stream for them to process.

Two kids putting bottles into the return and earn chutes. Photo taken from behind so you can only see their backs.
New South Wales introduced a container deposit scheme in late 2017, following other states.(ABC News: Sarah Maunder)

Meanwhile, the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) is about to roll out a new app nationally to help people work out what items can and cannot be recycled and where.

Called Recycle Mate, the app scans an item then produces an answer.

"We have, for example in Australia, over 500 local government areas and each of those areas has their own system for managing waste," ACOR chief executive Suzanne Toumbourou said.

"That kind of diversity can cause confusion.

"For example, you might be in a local government area that's undergoing an innovative trial on how to recycle soft plastics. It'll give you real-time information on how to appropriately dispose of a product," she said.

While the processors of recycled plastics say having a clean waste stream is vital to them.

"Sorting is the biggest challenge in recycling plastic as all the polymers, all the bits of plastic are different materials and as such need to be separated," Recycling Plastics Australia's Stephen Scherer said.

His plant in Adelaide's inner north is will soon undergo a $25 million upgrade, partly paid for by the federal government's modernisation fund. Once running the facility will be able to recycle food-grade plastic allowing used yoghurt containers to be turned back into yoghurt containers.

"We now see that the technology is available. It is doable but it's certainly not cheap on the front side," Mr Scherer said.

What about enzymes that 'eat' plastic?

There could also be another development on the horizon that may help deal with the millions of tonnes of plastic waste generated in Australia annually.

Samsara, a start-up firm backed by the Australian National University, Woolworths and Main Sequence — which manages the CSIRO's innovation fund — have discovered a way to break down plastic to its base form using enzymes. The material can then be used to make new plastic.

The company believe it will make plastic infinitely recyclable, reducing the need to create products from virgin materials like fossil fuels.

Close-up of a pile of crushed plastic bottles and cans
Researchers have discovered a way to break down plastic to its base form using enzymes.(ABC News)

The research is currently focused on PET bottles, like those used to hold soft drink and water, and polyester but the firm is looking to advance its process so all kinds of plastic can be repeatedly recycled.

The future of plastic, the planet and the role of the consumer.

Even with all this change and technological advances, millions of tonnes of plastic are still sent to landfill each year, and that is unlikely to change through recycling alone.

A change in consumer behaviour is already underway and it has begun to drive businesses to improve their practices and governments to set waste reduction strategies.

But given the scope of the problem, there remains a lot of work to be done.

Posted 30 Oct 202130 Oct 2021Sat 30 Oct 2021 at 11:36pm, updated 31 Oct 202131 Oct 2021Sun 31 Oct 2021 at 2:17amShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp

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