Plastics recycling rates in Australia and Tasmania are dreadfully low and over the last decade there has not been a consistent improvement. The 2013–14 National Plastics Recycling Survey found that the amount of plastic that was recycled in Australia in 2013-14 was a 2% increase on the previous year but the amount consumed increased by 4%. There had been a similar rise in the previous year. In 2013–14 the national plastic recycling rate was 20.4% and in Tasmania it was 13.5%.
The public debate and the strategies being applied to increase plastics recycling are largely misinformed and have the wrong priorities. Governments and councils are focusing on measures that placate people and deter real broadscale action to lift recycling rates.
We are being consoled by the appearance of the triangular recycling symbol on plastic containers, being far too optimistic that container deposit schemes will make a difference, and feel we are making a big difference by participating in kerbside recycling. Visionary goals of zero waste to landfill are, in the case of plastics, impractical and, I believe, put people off trying to increase recycling rates. The debate about which plastics could be banned is important but, so far, largely targets plastic types such as polystyrene or specific items such as straws or particular fast-food packaging, which are consumed in very small amounts.
This failure of effective plastics recycling is largely due to a failure by the public and decision-makers to understand which plastics are being consumed in each economic sector and the purpose for which they are being used. The old adage that you cannot manage something until you understand it, and you cannot understand it until you collect data on it, is most apt with plastics. We are measuring use but strategies are not linked to this data. Actions are often pushed by certain industry sectors. For instance, the packaging industry has made considerable progress in recycling the more obvious plastic containers and this has taken the heat out of the public and political debate.
Note: All statistics in this article relating to recycling of plastics in Australia are from the 2013– 14 National Plastics Recycling Survey conducted by Sustainable Resource Use.
Plastic packaging is the ‘plastic material used for the containment, protection, marketing and/or handling of a product’ (2013–14 National Plastics Recycling Survey).
Non-packaging plastics, also called durable or hard plastics, are the ‘plastic material used for a broad range of consumer and industrial products with varying life spans’ (2013–14 National Plastics Recycling Survey).
Why plastics recycling is failing
The debate about plastic pollution and recycling is centred almost entirely on plastic packaging and there is little discussion of non-packaging plastics. This is understandable due to decades of justified criticism of the packaging industry for wasteful single-use items that have been a major source of litter and marine debris. However, the recycling of plastic packaging is relatively successful: nationally, 43.9% of packaging is recycled (this percentage has grown by an average of more than 1% per year since 2000) and only 8.2% of non-packaging plastic is recycled (and this percentage has not changed since 2008). The packaging recycling figure is elevated by the extraordinary recycling rate in Victoria (see below).
But this obsession with packaging plastics must stop. Only about 35% of plastics consumed in Tasmania and nationally are packaging and the rest, durable plastics, make up the other 65%.
One way that public concern is dissipated is through the use of the triangular symbol on most plastic bottles and a growing number of other plastic containers. Essentially this symbol is meaningless because all plastics can be recycled in theory and the symbol does not tell you if the object is recyclable in your area. In America there is a live debate about requiring that the symbol is only placed on packaging in areas where that item is actually being recycled. The important information is the plastic identification number inside or beside the triangular symbol, but this only has meaning to the recycler, because no Tasmanian councils use it their communications with the public.
Although South Australia has had a container deposit scheme for decades, its plastics packaging recycling rate is only just ahead of Tasmania and well behind other states. Container deposit schemes probably help to decrease litter but will not help much to increase recycling. Victoria has a plastic packaging recycling rate of 86.8%, mainly because it is the home to most of Australia’s plastic manufacturing and recycling industries and has an efficient and comprehensive kerbside recycling system. New South Wales records a rate of 40.4%, South Australian 37.4%, Tasmania 33.7% and other states and territories much lower.
Programs in Tasmania that proclaim a goal of zero waste to landfill only sap the public’s motivation in the absence of more achievable short-term goals of reduction in waste to landfill and increasing recycling rates. With plastic consumption rising more rapidly than the amount being recycled, programs that proclaim a goal of zero waste to landfill are a distraction from the task of getting the majority of people to reduce consumption and increase recycling.
For example, at the end of their usable life, cloths that are entirely synthetic are not being recycled anywhere, cannot be composted and are not wanted by rag companies. Cloths that are part synthetic and part organic probably should not be composted, are accepted by rag collection companies but, once used, are disposed of into landfill. So apart from a very small amount that might be composted, at the end of their usable life, cloths are just rubbish.
While kerbside recycling programs should be retained and can and should be improved, they give ratepayers a false sense of how much plastic is recycled. In Tasmania they collect and recycle only about 3.1% of all plastics consumed each year. My rough estimate is that Tasmanian councils spend a total of about $10 million per annum on kerbside collection of all recyclables; the results do not seem to justify this expenditure. We must push for better results from kerbside recycling.
There are two main reasons why kerbside collection makes such a small contribution to Tasmania’s plastics recycling rate. Firstly, they exclude all non-packaging or durable plastic, all plastic packaging that is not a container, and some containers. They collect little more than plastic bottles.
It may never be financially viable to collect and recycle plastic films, bags, food wrappers etc, as to do so uses far more energy that producing new plastic. It would be better to reduce their use and dispose of what we use to landfill. Pyrolysis decomposition should be considered. We should not feel too bad about these options as plastic bags, films and wrappers probably make up only about 1% of all plastics consumed.
Clarifying which containers can be put into recycling bins is necessary but will only make a small difference (see below). We need to follow the example of some mainland councils by expanding kerbside collections to include a wider range of plastic containers and include some common small durable plastic items (those that fit in the bins).
The second reason for the small contribution of kerbside collections is that, counter-intuitively, most packaging that is consumed and recycled is not used in homes. Industry estimates are that about 40% of plastics is consumed domestically. Nationally only 46.7% and in Tasmania only 27.1% of recycled plastic packaging is sourced from domestic bins. Tasmania’s respectable overall plastic packaging recycling rate of 33.8% is propped up by the high contribution from the commercial and industrial sector. However, almost none is sourced from the construction and demolition sector; this must be improved.
With a few simple changes we can increase the range of plastic items acceptable in bins. In Montreal, Canada, residents campaigned for plastic plates and cutlery to be recycled; and all it took was an agreement by all manufacturers to use the same plastic type and mark each item with the appropriate plastic number. With targeted education programs we can decrease the amount of recyclables put into rubbish bins and reduce contamination of recyclables.
Hard plastic collection from homes can easily improve but so many items are mixed with other materials or are small and the relative cost of collecting them is very high. Major gains may be made if new collection systems can be created to collect and process durable plastics too big for recycling bins.
As we see from the article on Envorinex, the greatest gains will be made at no cost to tax payers by collecting from the commercial and industrial and construction and demolition sectors.
But you may still think that packaging is a priority because it gets into rivers, bays and oceans, where it becomes a hazard for marine life. From a search of a range of web-based sources, it is unclear what proportion of marine debris is durable plastics versus packaging but both must be contributors. Many surveys do not measure or report on the weight of items found so it is difficult to determine the relative contributions.
Perhaps the most comprehensive report is one by the Centre for Marine Conservation/Ocean Conservancy, summarised in the table below. It is taken from a 2009 UNEP report (found at: http://www.greenfacts.org/en/marine-litter/figtableboxes/table-2.htm).
Non-packaging plastics found in the top ten items included rope and cups, plates and cutlery. The weight of different plastic types is not provided but it is plausible that 2,215,329 pieces of rope might weigh much more than the 9,711,238 paper and plastic bags.
Some recent studies find that at least 20% of marine plastic debris originates from marine sources, including maritime transport, fishing, aquaculture and oil-drilling platforms; this would include many types of durable plastics such as fishing nets, aquaculture pen nets, fishing lines and storage containers.
Many of us hate plastic packaging but the public obsession with this is out of proportion to its prevalence, recyclability and impact. Instead we should focus on recycling durable plastics, not only because we use more of them and currently recycling rates are very low, but also they are generally much denser and cost-effective per kilogram to collect and process. This is particularly true when they are used in large quantities by specific industries. As we see from Envorinex (article here), locally based recycling of durable plastic can be done on a large scale profitably and not be dependent on council payments. Annually this one company collects and recycles about twice the amount of plastics collected through all the council kerbside recycling schemes in Tasmania.
This 10m length of plastic pipe was recovered by the author from near the South Arm boat ramp in the middle of 2016. It is probably a feeder pipe from a fish farm in North-west Bay. It was later collected by the Clarence Council and presumably taken to landfill. This pipe is the equivalent in weight to 1240 of the shopping bags also shown. If left where it was found it probably would have ended up in the open ocean and eventually broken up into fragments small enough to be ingested by birds, fish and other animals.
by Peter McGlone - TCT Director
To image at the top of this article is of a collection stanchions and feed pipe at Envorinex Low Head. Photo supplied by Envorinex.