ACOR, Circular Economy, Features, Product Stewardship

ACOR: Making product stewardship work for Australia

By Suzanne Toumbourou

The recycling sector is growing and is an important part of Australia’s economy; contributing almost $19 billion a year in economic value and supporting over 94,000 jobs, while helping to meet Australia’s waste reduction and resource recovery targets. The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) is an industry forum for resource recovery, recycling and remanufacturing.

Product stewardship – where manufacturers or brands take responsibility for their products over their entire lifecycle, including end-of-use – can help the recycling sector to thrive further, but we need to get it right. You wouldn’t put contaminated material in your recycling bin and expect a high value outcome. Product stewardship, like the quality of our recycling stream, is only as good as what goes into it. We need to move beyond the hype and create a framework that delivers real results.

ACOR represents recyclers, as they  seek to meet and exceed Australia’s resource recovery targets and lead Australia’s circular economy transition. ACOR knows that product stewardship programs can have enormous benefits, helping to move the economy towards the circular model that would help solve our climate and resource challenges, while delivering jobs and productivity. But it’s up to us all to make sure these programs deliver genuine outcomes for Australia’s people, environment and economy.

The most well-known product stewardship programs are the various container deposit schemes, which now operate around the country. Generally, consumers pay a few cents extra on the cost of their bottle or can, and then claim this back via drop-off at a collection point. These schemes have raised return rates to a national average of almost 70 per cent, while maximising recycling outcomes, reducing litter, supporting jobs and fundraising for community groups. While more could be done to increase return rates (Germany gets 98 per cent on theirs) they are a great start. Container deposit schemes will soon operate in every Australian state and territory. Recyclers have identified the need for a nationally harmonised approach to support better efficiency and impact, including targets, higher deposit rates, broad collection network coverage, strong marketing, appropriate eligibility settings, and robust governance and accountability. 

It is vital for recyclers to have a voice in how product stewardship schemes operate. After all, they’re the ones doing the hard yards of resource recovery and remanufacturing. There are three crucial elements to recycling: collection, processing and end markets. While some Australian product stewardship programs have delivered remarkably well at the collection end, some are doing less well in the other two areas.  

Our new report, Recyclers in Product Stewardship: Challenges, Priorities and Recommendations from the Recycling Sector, shows the steps we must take to ensure these programs deliver real outcomes in recycling and waste reduction. Most of us have heard a cynical comment about recycling: “They don’t really recycle those you know.” “Don’t bother sorting it, it all goes into the same place.” If you work in the recycling sector this can hurt to hear, but we need to be realistic about how community members might gain a negative perception of recycling activities. Substandard schemes are no good for anybody. Negative PR from a less-than-optimal program is a threat to the credibility of the recycling industry. This could happen when product stewardship is driven by marketing and PR, or where collection happens but not much else, presenting a reputational and operational risk to our entire sector.

The ACOR report shows that we need to rethink and restructure product stewardship to align with circular economy principles and efficient markets. A scheme must not be seen as an end in itself: it must be a means to delivering sustainable and economically viable circular outcomes, in partnership with the entire supply chain.  

While product stewardship is valuable, it shouldn’t be the sole mechanism. Where mature recycling markets exist, options such as landfill bans, export regulations and stronger enforcement of existing regulations can be more cost-effective. 

Importantly, effective product stewardship schemes should support infrastructure and markets for recycled materials, promote proper collection, and enhance producer responsibility. They are most suitable for new recycling supply chains or low-recycling-rate scenarios, rather than retrofitting mature markets. 

Clarity from the Australian government about intervention in recycling, along with a defined “Trigger Framework” would also foster investment confidence by establishing transparent criteria for starting a scheme. 

Ensuring equitable risk distribution across the supply chain and adequate funding to cover the real costs of recycling are essential for genuine recycling outcomes. Duplicate schemes are also a potential issue. More than one set of infrastructure doing the same thing just raises costs across the board, without delivering value to the community.

Next, we need to encourage design for recycling and reuse. That means ensuring products are designed with every stage of their life cycle in mind, and that we maximise what we get from them once they reach the recycling stream. We all know the saying “Reduce, reuse recycle.” It’s true that reduction and reuse are crucial to meet environment goals, but the fact is that every product reaches an ‘end of use’. Most products will eventually reach a waste stream where they are recovered and recycled. There is much more value in products at end-of-use if they are designed for recoverability and recyclability.

The next piece of the puzzle is creating market demand for recycled materials to ensure the viability of recycling operations. Recyclers are manufacturers: producing products. These products need a genuine market at the end of the process. Done right, government signals can benefit the industry. For example, the UK government has mandated a minimum percentage of recycled polymers in all plastic products. Products that contain less than 30 per cent recycled plastic attract an extra tax. This creates certainty for the industry, increases investment in the sector and ensures a market for recycled plastics – noting that it is fundamental that we drive demand for domestically produced recycled materials to ensure the viability of the Australian recycling sector.  

This includes access to overseas markets. There are unintended consequences of well-meaning laws aimed at stopping us from exporting our mess to developing countries. Australian recyclers have invested in equipment and know-how to recycle recovered plastics into finished goods, yet our laws restrict us exporting these products, seeing them as “waste” when they are just like any other commercial product for sale. The upshot? You can import a brand-new virgin plastic bottle into Australia, but you can’t export an Australian-made recycled pellet without navigating an expensive and prohibitive level of red-tape. This is uniquely self-sabotaging and needs to change.

Read more: Recyclers must have seat at table with product stewardship

The ACOR report also demonstrates that we need to enhance collection infrastructure and consumer incentives. Schemes lacking incentives for consumers to return items to away-from-home collection points, or lacking a comprehensive and well-promoted collection network, always suffer from poor collection rates. Particularly concerning are batteries, which pose risks in waste and recycling streams due to fires in facilities. The proliferation of electronic devices, including disposable items like vapes with sealed batteries, exacerbates this issue, compounded by inadequate consumer education about safe disposal.

There is widespread confusion about which products contain batteries and which stewardship schemes apply to different electronic items. Despite various existing voluntary and co-regulated schemes, such as B-cycle, Mobile Muster and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, many products aren’t accepted, leading to gaps in collection infrastructure and community confusion about disposal options. Without comprehensive access to safe disposal and compelling incentives for consumers to return items, risks to human health, the environment, and the entire recycling system, persist. To address these challenges, a holistic approach to e-product stewardship is essential, including collection access, consumer incentives, and refund or deposit schemes to encourage proper disposal practices and maximise recycling outcomes.

The next thing on the list sounds like red tape, but it’s essential: implementing robust governance structures that ensure accountability and transparency, with representation across the entire supply chain. In particular, recyclers must be at the table in product stewardship governance to ensure real recycling outcomes are being achieved. Additionally, there are currently multiple ways to define and measure concepts like “recycling”. Some only count what is collected, while others count what’s actually recycled. Instead of comparing apples with oranges, we need to be sure there is an Australia-wide set of measures, so we know who is doing what and what outcomes have been achieved. Last, ACOR will sometimes need to get the big stick out to ensure compliance and consequences. Customised accreditation systems often lead to self-reporting by schemes, resulting in excessive costs and inefficiencies for recyclers and brand owners. Moreover, schemes’ own accreditation systems for recyclers can foster conflicts of interest, prioritising cost-cutting measures over quality results – undermining confidence and hampering investment in recycling capabilities.

ACOR has outlined the value of a national Australian Recyclers Accreditation Program, which can provide independent, objective, and consistent assessments of recycling sites’ operations to ensure specified standards are met sustainably and securely. Alongside addressing legitimate recycling operations, there’s a pressing need to streamline Australia’s fragmented regulatory landscape for resource recovery. A nationally harmonised resource recovery framework is essential to drive circular economy objectives, define ‘end of waste,’ and bolster investment confidence in recycling. 

Recycling is the critical link that closes the loop in a circular system. We have targets to meet and resources to conserve, but we can only achieve real-world results if recyclers are engaged in ensuring product stewardship schemes deliver on their promises. Working better together, we can transform product stewardship from a slogan into a powerful tool for a thriving Australian circular economy.  

Suzanne Toumbourou is the CEO of ACOR. 

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