The ‘Introduction of flexible plastics packaging into kerbside recycling services’ project was aimed at recovering flexible plastic packaging through existing kerbside collections from four partner councils: Cardinia, Hobsons Bay and Nillumbik, launched in November 2016, and Boroondara launched in February 2017 (after council elections).
The area’s 170,000 households were sent information packs which among other explanatory information included 10 sample plastic bags which could be used by residents to start bagging their flexible packaging in their kerbside recycling bin. Printed text on the bags also listed what could and couldn’t be included. These council-provided plastic bags are not necessary to enabling flexible plastic collection, but rather were part of the first steps in communicating the initiative and encouraging household behaviour change
The ‘bag in bag’ technique stemmed from a 20-week trial run by the MWRRG with the City of Darebin and Sustainable Research Use in 2012, where it was found to be an effective method for the project’s establishment phase. MWRRG program coordinator, Nina Thomas, told Inside Waste the learnings from this initial trial (funded by round one of the Metro Fund) lay the foundations for this most recent project.
The 2016 project was also facilitated by the fact that the four councils all had existing recycling contracts with SKM Recycling. Flexible plastics collected at the kerbside are transported to SKM Recycling’s materials recovery facility where the material is sorted, compacted and baled for recycling either locally or overseas. The sorting process is currently conducted manually however, the company has committed $280,000 towards installing automated optical sorting equipment (supported by a further $10,000 from the Australian Packaging Covenant) at their new materials recover facility in Laverton which is currently under construction.
When asked about the long-term viability of flexible plastics collection – in the context of limited end market demand in Australia where it is still cheaper to import virgin plastic – Thomas acknowledged the issues, describing the situation as a “chicken and egg scenario”.
“There is a lot of interest [in this project] which is great, but you don’t want to jump in too quickly without having those end markets established and everyone on board. We need to take a step back before any sort of further project expansion,” she said.
“We can’t boost that local plastic reprocessing capacity until we have those end markets established, but then it’s difficult to establish those end markets without having the capacity. So this is where we need to consult with state and local government, industry, reprocessors and collection groups. We need to have those discussions and conduct research before we look at boosting the capacity and also before we look at what markets are available for those recovered plastics.”
The results of the project can be gauged by its fairly successful household participation rates and very low contamination rates. While kerbside recycling bin audits suggested 28% of households were engaging in the project, household survey responses indicated 60% of homes were using the service.
“We are assuming that this difference is because not everyone that’s participating in the program is putting a full bag of flexible plastics in their recycling bin every fortnight, so some of those audits wouldn’t have captured everyone participating in the program. Some people might have those bags of flexible plastics still in their home and still be filling them up before they put them in the recycling bin,” Thomas said.
“We had really low levels of contamination of 1% or less which also indicates the success of the information that went out. It just goes to show how residents really understood the education material. Some of the contamination items were things like foil wrappers of a chip bag which can be recycled through other flexible plastics recycling programs, but not this program,” she added.
The information material did present one of the program’s biggest challenges as each council had to have the material approved through their own internal communications teams.
“We didn’t expect to at the start of the project but our organisation ended up stepping in and playing a key role in the communications side of things to make sure that everyone was across all the communications materials that were going out,” Thomas said.
Significantly, the project’s communications generated a lot of positive community feedback, including unprecedented social media activity and direct positive feedback to councils.
Bag audits show the material recycled is a broad mix of packaging: product packaging (40%), HDPE carry bags (25%), fresh produce bags (10%), trays and punnets (10%), other film such as stretch wrap and bubble wrap (10%), and LDPE carry bags (5%). Based on the conservative average of a 28% recycling rate and a yield per household of 6.5 kg per year, the project’s final reports estimates a yield of 371 tonnes in its first year, growing to a total of 1696 tonnes over the first three years.
Thomas will be joined by Sam Di Giovanni, coordinator waste management, City of Boroondara, to deliver the ‘Flexible Plastics Recycling’ talk on Wednesday, October 10 from 11am to 12pm at Waste Expo Australia, held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Attendees can expect to hear about what was achieved, barriers and opportunities, risks and how they were mitigated, lessons learned, and next steps for increasing recovery of flexible plastics.
Click to read the project’s final report, case study and household survey analysis.