Research & Reports

Recycling goes to landfill, while technology sits idle

The effectiveness of recycling services across Australia is being seriously questioned, as new research shines a critical light on the country’s waste management efforts.

The findings of the first of a series of surveys by the University of NSW to better understand community attitudes to important issues, comes as the growing waste problem around Australia and globally intensifies, after a ban in January by China to no longer accept certain recyclable materials it had been taking from other countries.

Most people, across all states and demographics, believe the recyclables they put out in their council bins are ending up in landfill.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, said rising stockpiles and increasing use of landfill – in the absence of a coordinated government solution to our growing waste problem – had not been lost on consumers and they wanted action.

“Each council is fending for themselves right across Australia, and while the meeting of Federal and state environment ministers earlier this year made an important announcement about a new National Waste Policy stating that by 2025 all packaging will be reusable, compostable or recyclable, we don’t to wait another seven years for this decision to come into effect,” Sahajwalla said.

“There is much that can be done right now, given that scientifically-developed and proven methods are currently available through the green microfactory technology, yet the Federal government is now also pushing on with an investment of $200 million into so called waste-to-energy projects that actually destroys forever waste materials that can be used over and over as a renewable resource.”

Key findings show:

  • 65 per cent believe recyclable put into council bins goes to landfill, 69.5 per cent female, 51.4 per cent aged 18-34, 75.1 per cent aged 65+;
  • 49 per cent of people believe green and eco-friendly efforts will not have an effect in their lifetime, and 63 per cent of those aged 65+ see no benefits being realised; and
  • 72 per cent of people would recycle more if the material was reliably recycled.

People are also confused about which levels of government – local, state Federal, or all three – are responsible for their local waste and recycling services. In fact, some people think industry, not government, is responsible for waste management.

But what is overwhelming is the Australian public’s determination for our government to do much more to better manage recycling and investment into technology, such as microfactories.

The survey found that for 91.7 per cent of people, it is very, or somewhat important for Australia to invest in microfactory technology to ‘reform’ most common waste in reusable ‘high value’ materials, and 80.4 per cent support government investment in this technology to reduce landfill and create jobs.

“It is clear on this issue that people want action, and they want governments to invest and do something now,” Sahajwalla said.

“A number of councils and private business are interested in our technology, but unless there are incentives in place, Australia will be slow to capitalise on the potential to lead the world in reforming our waste into something valuable and reusable.

“Rather than export our rubbish overseas and to do more landfill for waste, the microfactory technology has the potential for us to export valuable materials and newly manufactured products instead.

“Through the microfactory technology, we can enhance our economy and be part of the global supply-chain by supplying more valuable materials around the world and stimulating manufacturing innovation in Australia.”