Kerbside recycling schemes commenced in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to increasing environmental awareness under the mantra ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’. The community was looking for a practical hands-on solution to stem the tide of a proliferation of packaging and wasted resources.
From my recollection, Victoria was the first to introduce a dedicated container with a bag-based program. New South Wales followed with Recycle Sydney and Recycle NSW driving the revolution. By 1993, 89 per cent of all Sydney households had a black crate-based recycling service. As the volume and range of materials continued to grow, the use of wheelie bins and automated vehicles led councils to embed recycling services into general waste collection contracts. An Australian Standard, AS 4123, was developed to standardise bin colours but many councils continued to go their own way, with choices based on corporate colour schemes or personal preference.
In the absence of a Recycle NSW-type structure, programs were developed and implemented in an ad hoc and inconsistent manner, often driven by the desire of elected representatives to respond to constituent lobbying. Today, the range of products, especially plastics has expanded, bin colours vary across Australia’s 537 individual councils. Communication and education strategies don’t always cut through at a council level, and to say there is confusion about what goes in the bin is an understatement.
Spare a thought for the 100 plus material recovery facilities (MRFs) nationally, processing the contents of recycling bins with ever increasing levels of contamination at a time when quality has never been more important with export options closing.
There was recognition of these issues at the national meeting of the state environment ministers in April 2021, with ministers agreeing to: “work collaboratively to improve the harmonisation of municipal waste collection, taking the first step within each state through the implementation of standards within each jurisdiction for kerbside recycling, and a national implementation roadmap that considers costs and benefits”.
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A decade ago, NSW linked council performance payments, including the standardisation of bin colours. However, they never followed through with a mass media campaign leaving communication to councils – it was a missed opportunity.
Now, the Victorian Government is set to invest more than $300 million to transform its recycling sector. A new four-bin recycling system for recyclables, glass, FOGO and general waste supported by a statewide education program will help transition to the new system. The latter is long overdue, but I’m not convinced a new glass bin is what we need with a container deposit scheme (CDS) around the next corner.
We know that glass is a challenge in kerbside collections, producing a low-quality, contaminated product. It is also one of the most popular containers redeemed in a CDS, producing a quality feedstock for infinite glass recycling and remanufacture. Our data from NSW kerbside pre- and post-CDS introduction reveals an average reduction of 60 per cent of eligible containers are diverted from kerbside recycling bins, by count. As glass weighs up to 10 times more than other containers, taking this out of kerbside bins impacts fortnightly recycling bin weights. To have a separate kerbside bin for glass only, and a CDS system in place, seems like overkill.
A regional Victorian waste audit for a group of councils in 2021 found each household per fortnight generates a total of 18.6 eligible recycling containers of which 55 per cent of all glass containers were eligible under the proposed CDS. On average, 3.3kg of glass containers are generated per household per fortnight. If the introduction of a CDS reduced the eligible glass containers by 50 per cent (in regional NSW the reduction of eligible glass containers was measured at 71 per cent), a monthly 120-litre glass bin would weigh 4.8kgs and the bin volume consumed would be about 24 litres, or 20 per cent. It could take five months (20 weeks) to fill the bin by volume with a weight of 24kgs. Based on this data, and the NSW lived experience of CDS, the introduction of a fourth bin is premature. There will still be glass in the kerbside recycling bins but it is questionable as to whether it will justify a dedicated glass bin.
At the same Environment Ministers meeting in April, there was agreement in relation to CDS to “harmonise containers (size and products) across jurisdictions, refund amounts, standards for labelling, and community education by the end of 2025, ensuring consistent recycling collection strategies across all states”.
The Northern Territory recently conducted a review of its CDS program, which recommended expanding the project range to include alcohol, spirit and cordial packaged in glass. The South Australian (SA) government has released a discussion paper reviewing Australia’s oldest container scheme. Among many things considered is the product range. Its analysis found that used beverage containers account for 22 per cent of kerbside recycling bins. Of this amount, glass represents 89 per cent with three products, wine (43 per cent), spirits (7 per cent) and other non-alcoholic drinks (15 per cent) representing 65 per cent.
A CDS is an example of extended producer responsibility with the beverage industry paying for the return, whereas kerbside collection is paid for by councils and in turn ratepayers. If all glass wine, spirit and cordial containers were deemed eligible, the SA modelling shows a saving of $58 million per annum to 68 councils representing 745,000 households. The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) and CSIRO reports cited in the SA discussion paper support this pathway to CDS.
We know based on the SA report that 93 per cent of all glass cullet used in bottle making is sourced from the CDS scheme as it’s clean. Just 7 per cent comes from kerbside recycling bins. Only 11 per cent of all glass in kerbside recycling bins is processed into bottles with the remaining 85 per cent used in civil construction and 4 per cent lost
If we are now moving from linear to circular economy, why are we not considering putting all glass through CDS, irrespective of product, as this is not just a litter issue, it’s about greater resource recovery and product quality for reuse?
Whatever the outcome of these considerations, it is my hope that once we land on an agreed national approach, with an agreed timeframe to transition to compliance, then the Commonwealth and all state governments will step up to fund a mass media campaign to Recycle Right. This is 30 years overdue.
Anne Prince is the principal of A. Prince Consulting.