Features, Industry News

The recycling industry unites after claims by 60 Minutes report

Many in Australia’s recycling industry are concerned that Sunday’s 60 Minutes program on Australia’s plastic waste challenges, screened on-air in mid-April, didn’t paint the full picture of the country’s recycling efforts and didn’t highlight the industry’s contribution to improving waste management.

The report included a claim that much of Australia’s plastic waste is being disposed of incorrectly in Southeast Asia and the report didn’t highlight many of recycling’s upsides in Australia’s waste industry.

In a statement released by waste advocates across numerous associations in Australia, concern was raised over the 60 Minutes report potentially discouraging a vast majority of Australians who regularly recycle, to keep doing so.

Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) CEO, Peter Shmigel, said Australian recycling is highly successful, despite what he feels are “ill-conceived claims” in the broadcast.

“In fact, up to 90 per cent of material collected for recycling is made into new products,” he said.

A claim was made by 60 Minutes that 71,000 tonnes of recyclable plastic was exported to Malaysia. Shmigel said if the claim that all these materials are not being properly processed is accurate, this is very concerning as there are also legitimate processors in Malaysia.

“71,000 tonnes represent less than two per cent of the four million tonnes of what is actually exported and less than 0.2 per cent of the 37 million collected for recycling,” he said.

Re.Group CEO, Garth Lamb, told Inside Waste it is frustrating to see what appears to be another beat-up designed to win TV ratings by undermining public confidence in the recycling system.

“Of course we want public and especially political attention on real challenges in our sector, but responsible journalism should help the public understand what they can do to improve recycling, not falsely tell them it’s all some sham,” Lamb said.

“It’s plainly ridiculous to suggest people should stop recycling because they are outraged at the thought of recyclable material going to waste. What do they think would be happening to all this material, if there weren’t people out there every day, working hard to recover stuff from the yellow bin and get it back into the productive economy?

“There are thousands of great people employed across our sector, doing their best to make what they can from the material society throws at them,” Lamb said.

The local recycling industry, which employs more than 50,000 Australians and generates up to $15 billion in value, is rapidly aiming to advance recycling investments in response to the impacts of restrictions across Asia – including implementing high-tech infrastructure to improve sorting and processing to produce high quality materials from recovered waste from households, businesses and construction sites.

60 Minutes producer, Grace Tobin, told Inside Waste the report highlighted Australia’s ongoing problem with plastic waste, and specifically, the reality of how some plastic is being processed – often illegally – in south-east Asian countries such as Malaysia.

“It’s an issue that affects ordinary Australians, who deserved to know about it,” Tobin said.

“Reports have been coming out of Malaysia for many months now that plastic waste from Australia, the UK, the US and many other countries was being disposed of incorrectly by operators without permits and no regard for the environment.

“It’s why a special task force was formed by the Malaysian government to shut down hundreds of illegal plastic recycling factories and prevent their proliferation. It’s also why 60 Minutes travelled to Malaysia to research these claims first-hand by meeting with the chairman of the task force, Ng Sze Han, and joining him on several raids where we found bags of Australian branded plastic waste,” Tobin said.

She said it’s important to remind critics that 60 Minutes is not a public relations company – and the purpose of the story in question was to highlight a specific issue.

“That said, our report did in fact highlight some of the industry’s upsides, related specifically to plastic recycling, by featuring the efforts of David Hodge and his Albury based business, Plastic Forests. His initiative to develop products made entirely from contaminated plastic film received extremely positive feedback from our audience.

“Our aim was always to bring these pressing issues to light and, in turn, place public pressure on those in power to improve plastic recycling efforts here in Australia by keeping recycling on home soil and reducing the amount of plastic ending up in landfill.

“To say that our story alone would discourage ‘a vast majority of Australians’ from recycling would be a gross exaggeration, and we would hope that it would instead help keep certain parts of the industry honest,” Tobin said.

Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) CEO, Gayle Sloan said the Australian waste industry is investing heavily and working collaboratively to upgrade local processing capacity, which in the past were to some extent built to meet China’s previous specifications.

“Developing any industry is a collaborative effort and one that takes time. As we move forward, the industry is seeking leadership from all levels of government,” Sloan said.

While National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO, Rose Read, said the council encourages householders to continue to separate and sort their recycling correctly to reduce contamination and realise the environmental and economic benefits of recycling.

According to the National Waste Report 2018, undertaken by the Australian government, plastic exports from Australia decreased last year by 25 per cent. It also found that:

  • Australians generated 67 million tonnes of waste (including 13 million from kerbside collections),
  • 37 million tonnes of waste were recycled, including five million from kerbside collections,
  • 33 million tonnes of the recycling were undertaken in Australia, and
  • Four million tonnes of material were exported from Australia for recycling.

It is estimated that 10-15 per cent of kerbside recycling cannot be recycled because it is contaminated with nappies, soft plastics, garden hoses, bricks and batteries.

MobileMuster manager, Spyro Kalos, said plastics recycling has been significantly impacted by foreign waste bans in recent months, but that’s not to say that all aspects of the recycling industry in Australia are similarly placed. “The challenges that arise from policy changes in other markets should be seen as opportunities to develop markets locally,” Kalos said.

“Mobile phone recycling plays an important role in the reduction of e-waste in Australia, and the country’s government accredited program, MobileMuster, works with accredited recycling partners to ensure products are processed and recycled to the highest environmental standard, allowing 99 per cent of the materials in a mobile phone to be recovered and returned to manufacturing of new products for reuse, including plastics.”

A recent Reachtel survey, commissioned by ACOR, found that almost 93 per cent of people said reducing waste and recycling materials into new products is important to them, while 87 per cent supported increasing recycling and reducing landfill by processing food and garden material from rubbish bins into useful products.

Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of NSW (WCRA), Tony Khoury, said prior to January 2018, China aggressively sought recyclable material from around the world.

“It was the Chinese that set the low bar on the specification for recyclables that allowed contaminated recyclables to be imported into their country. Many of the recycling facilities from around the world were then constructed to screen, produce and bale recyclables to this specification,” Khoury told Inside Waste.

Khoury said that over the past few years, the Australian recycling industry has had to deal with some major challenging issues, including China’s decision to stop taking recyclable materials.

The overall objective of the industry is to achieve the most desirable waste management outcomes and where ever possible recover the maximum amount of resources.

“With better support from all levels of government the waste industry can achieve these better outcomes,” Khoury said.