Features, Opinion

Opinion: Yellow-top bin recyclables will be banned within five years

This article was contributed by Adam Faulkner, the chief executive officer of the Northern Adelaide Waste Management Authority (NAWMA) and Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) national vice-president.

I predict that exportation of sorted yellow-top bin recyclables will be banned within five years. Even if I’m off by a year or two, we need to move now, and fast.

WMRR president, Garth Lamb, recently went on record saying, “we have more people, more engaged, in an environment where we’re being listened to by more decision-makers”, and he is right. Look at the recent Federal Election. We are on the national stage, in the mainstream political and media sphere. Both major parties had costed policies on waste management and recycling. Every other election cycle I can think of was either deathly silent on our sector, or the matter of recycling was swatted away with the ever helpful “check your bin day with your local council”.

Not anymore. Even more prophetic than Garth’s one-liner, I smile when recalling Mark Rawson from Rawtec, who is also the outgoing WMRR SA president, declaring us the cool kids. No doubt this will pass, so let’s use our new-found coolness to future-proof our industry from the next China National Sword.

Quite frankly, I’m sick of talking about China. The only reason we are still talking about it is because as an industry we spent the last 18 months running around looking for the next global market to consume our sorted unprocessed yellow-top bin commodities. China was neither unforeseeable nor unexpected, we just didn’t move as it was far too easy to export into the biggest resource-hungry market in the world. When this market closed, “other Asia” was left to pick up the pieces. Again, very foreseeable – these markets have now either established their own import restrictions, or are in the process of doing so. The global market is shrinking. This is more evident with the recent Basel Convention announcement, which amends the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste to effectively restrict the global scrap plastic trade.

So, what exactly is recycling? Many in the local government sector fondly believed that the trucks collecting those yellow-top bins was recycling – job done. Those fabulous and tenacious waste management officers knew to look further however and saw their local materials recovery facility (MRF) was actually doing the recycling. The learned few (you know who you are) were only satisfied that recycling was occurring when they received notification that the downstream recipient had taken ownership of the sorted (but unprocessed) yellow-top bin contents. Now that’s recycling, right? Wrong.

Recycling, in my view, only occurs when we are using those yellow-top bin contents as an actual resource input into secondary reprocessing or remanufacturing. Now I’m not going to get all misty-eyed and talk about the second revolution of mass manufacturing in Australia. But I can see, again within five years, an onshore secondary reprocessing industry driven by keeping our recycling resources local. We could build real scale, capability and capacity – a new industry built on recycling. Imagine a resident putting their plastics packaging into their yellow-top bin and linking that to the park bench they are sitting on at the recently renovated local park. Or that same resident knowing that the glass that couldn’t be recovered for upcycling into bottles, was downcycled into the besser brick retaining wall at the same park. That’s powerful.

But, before we go and remanufacture more park benches than there are kids to sit on them, we need to value these resources, not discount them. We need to mandate recycled content into procurement contracts, not find an easy way to use virgin or imported materials. We need to buy this stuff back! If we pull through this demand, and match it with the newfound scale, capability and capacity, we could solve this whole thing for good.

I applaud the many councils who have forged ahead and built roads out of glass and plastic, but why don’t we go a step further and formalise it? I can see the glass and plastic stockpiles disappearing overnight if there was a 5-15 per cent recycled content directive for state and local government purchasing. This won’t cannibalise the current market for high-value commodities, but it will pull through demand for the mid-low value recyclate that currently does not always have a viable home. If you are in a council, get to work on your procurement policy. And I urge state government to review its master specifications. We used to call this green or sustainable procurement, now many call it the circular economy. I don’t particularly care what we call it, we just need to get on and do it.

There are already green shoots. I see new plastics reprocessing capacity coming online each and every month across Australia. I see domestic paper manufacturers re-entering the post-consumer space. I see my industry responding. I see state governments forming working groups. I see hope.

My organisation, Northern Adelaide Waste Management Authority (NAWMA), has committed to the onshore reprocessing of all recoverable resources by 2020. We are over 80 per cent committed onshore and on track to meet our target by the end of this calendar year. We are a medium-sized local government entity owned by three councils in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. If we can do it, so can others. I know that many share our philosophy but imagine for a minute if everyone made the same commitment. The secondary reprocessing sector would have confidence to invest, and a new industry would thrive.

Let’s imagine a little more. What if the packaging manufacturers made their stuff out of recycled content and made it with the ability to be recycled? We’ve all seen the 2025 mandate, but what if this was actually achieved. Married with government-mandated recycled content in procurement specifications, and then we, as the resource recovery industry , can catch everything in between and do clever stuff with it. Now that’s recycling.

There is no use in putting all this effort into the clever bit if we can’t get the building blocks right. In the recent turbulent times, we went close to losing the hearts and minds of many. If we wobble again, we could lose them for good. Then my good friends, we are buggered. This simply cannot happen. We need to engage with our communities differently about how to responsibly use their kerbside bins. The messaging needs to be clear, consistent and simple. It needs to be delivered with authenticity and a genuineness that will resonate with even the most reluctant recycler. The one who is currently filling their bins left to right without discriminating the lid colour. Never before are we going to be asked to do more with a recycling stream that’s never been worse. It’s time to change the narrative and simplify the message. Don’t get too lost on lids, labels and scrunch tests – we just need to get waste out of the yellow-top bin and into the red-top bin, and while we’re at it, let’s get food out the red-top bin and into the green-top bin.

Lastly, be heard. Our industry associations are doing tremendous stuff. Get active in your local branches.

So, this is a call to action. Make it from recycled, with the ability to be recycled. Keep our resources onshore. Activate and support the reprocessing sector to form a secondary industry. Buy this stuff back. Engage with the community authentically to drive sustained behaviour change.

What if we don’t move? I don’t think this is an option anymore. For too long, we have let traditional practices get in the way of innovation. I know our industry and the people in it. Some of the smartest, strategic and agile thinkers operate in our sector, and new entrants bringing digitisation and disruption technology are helping us get better. We can get stuff done. Let’s get this done. Let’s lean in. Now, what if we pull this off? Do you think 60 Minutes would be interested?