Australia, Industry News, Opinion

Contamination big issue with FOGO rollout

As the national executive officer for the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA), I am on record as stating that one of the biggest issues facing the Australian organics recycling industry is contamination, contamination, and contamination. 

With the continued rollout of FOGO across the country via multiple local government jurisdictions, contamination seems likely to remain an issue for a considerable time to come.  The only solution is for all parties to tackle contamination together.   

The AORA Vision 2031 Roadmap clearly articulates this – “The supply of quality feedstock to the processor gate is a key – in many ways, the key – component of the organics recycling supply chain. Clean, source-separated feedstock without plastics, chemicals and other contaminants is central to the growth of organics recycling rates”. 

The Roadmap continues, “The single greatest issue facing the industry is the contamination of feedstocks, overwhelmed by plastics. Other contamination includes glass, metals, treated timbers, and persistent chemicals, which do not readily break down in the composting process (or in nature)”.

The introduction of FOGO, while considered an important contributor to increasing the diversion of organics away from landfill, is unfortunately presenting itself as a major contaminant source.

There are most likely many reasons for this, including:

  • A generation of community members who have become accustomed to co-mingling their waste streams especially when one bin (or maybe two) was all that was available.
  • Consequently, FOGO is a new service for many households who need time to adjust and learn/be educated what can and what cannot be included in FOGO.
  • A lack of understanding/awareness of the ‘why’ this is important and the consequences, for getting it both right and wrong!

“While testing and processing technology can address a fraction of the contamination problem, it is expensive and does not necessarily remove all of the contaminants consistently. Contaminated feedstock leading to contaminated products is anathema to the industry and would quickly destroy community trust in the industry and its products”, the AORA Vision 2031 Roadmap notes.

Governments across all three levels (national, state, and local) have an important role to play in this. They develop waste strategies and are a regulator of the process and the feedstock. They are a controller of the collection process (especially local government). They are a customer of waste collection companies as well as a feedstock supplier, and they can be a significant end-user of organic composted products.

There are a number of states and local government jurisdictions working on the FOGO contamination issue. Feedstock contamination in any form is a problem and we know FOGO has exacerbated the contamination issue. This is resulting in increased costs to organic processors as they try to decontaminate FOGO feedstock (an almost impossible task) or, where the problem is too big to manage, covering the costs associated with sending the feedstock or the contaminated components back to landfill.

There is an understanding and appreciation that we are in an evolutionary phase of managing contamination across the recycling industries and there are positive trends, including:

  • The beginning of the phase out of single-use plastics in some states.
  • Increased community awareness of the problems of contamination and a greater desire to ensure we recycle more of what we buy and use.
  • Various education programs are being conducted by states and local government jurisdictions on what is appropriate to include/exclude in the various household collection bins.
  • Greater awareness of the impact of a variety of persistent chemicals (e.g., PFAS) and how we can improve the management of these including the potential to phase-out use.

But more needs to be done, more consistently and more quickly. 

This requires focus, effort, commitment, and collaboration, right across the supply chain from governments, product manufacturing/production/distribution and must include wholesale, retail and commercial outlets and it must include the consumer and of course, the recycling industry itself, including organics recycling. 

If we work together on tackling contamination, the beneficiaries of this are all of the above, and more broadly, our local communities and beyond. 

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