Plastics just the tip of the iceberg

This year really has started with a bang (and not exactly a good one). I moved from discussing the risks that batteries pose, to another battery-related fire in a facility (or truck), to constantly being in dialogue with governments about the risk that incorrect classification and chemicals present on the sector’s ability to make safe recovered products.  

None of these topics are good news for our essential industry or the community at large. However, in many ways I feel like this is the conversation we needed to have if we really are bona fide in creating a circular economy in Australia.   

Since 2018 we have talked often and loudly about plastic. A worthy topic given the damage that both fossil fuels and the lifecycle of plastics are doing to the planet. However, plastic accounts for a relatively small fraction of the 74 million tonnes of waste we generate annually in Australia.  

What this discussion has highlighted is just how difficult it is to recover and recycle in the absence of design requirements (from polymer standards to chemical inclusions), extended producer responsibility obligations (to fund and manage its lifecycle) and only limited to no market demand for this recovered material.  

And no matter how hard we hope that all these elements will one day magically fall into place, they simply will not – the packaging system proved that.   

Regrettably with all the effort of respective governments over recent years to address plastics (single-use plastic bans implemented, container deposit schemes introduced, export restrictions, Recycling Modernisation Funding) we have barely moved the dial. The Australian Plastics Flows and Fates report states the national plastic recovery rate was just 14 per cent for 2020/21 – up from 11.8 per cent in 2016/17 – a growth rate of less than one per cent a year. The tap needs to be turned off at the source, and the producer made to sit at the table. 

In many ways managing plastics in Australia is a dress rehearsal for some of the more challenging and problematic materials that continue to circulate in Australia, such as PFAS and asbestos. I worry governments have not yet learnt the lessons. 

And trust me, simply coming down heavily in a regulatory sense on the WARR industry again and again may be good for media, but does not solve the problem of these substances circulating.

The waste and resource recovery (WARR) industry must stop being the whipping boy for problematic goods placed on the market with limited responsibility and questionable care, and rather be included in solving these structural issues.  

In 2024, there is no excuse for any company, manufacturer or importer to place something on the market that cannot be safely recovered. And given it seems that businesses are not going to do it themselves – and to be honest why would you be first mover – government must step in.  

As we hurtle towards 2030, the only thing we appear to be hurtling towards are more cross-jurisdictional, multilateral working groups and roundtables. We honestly do not need more meetings. We need action.  

We know 50 per cent of global carbon emissions, and 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress, are caused by resource extraction and processing. We all know what needs to be done. Take less, use it better and make it last longer.   

The Government needs to bite the bullet. Adopt the European Union Waste Directives. It is proven to work. The Directives have delivered better environmental outcomes for Europe and they can work in Australia too.  

 The Directives set the basic concepts and definitions related to waste management and resource recovery – and remarkably – they are commonsense. It requires that waste be managed: 

   without endangering human health and harming the environment;

   without risk to water, air, soil, plants or animals;

   without causing a nuisance through noise or odours; and 

   without adversely affecting the countryside or places of special interest. 

The Directives introduced the polluter pay principle and extended producer responsibility – exactly what we need here, with the EU evidence being that recycling and reuse go up, following this and disposal goes down.  

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For example, a recent research report on municipal waste by the European Parliament found that four countries have already reached or exceeded the 2030 target to recycle or reuse 60 per cent of municipal waste (Germany, Bulgaria, Austria and Slovenia). Under the EU Landfill Directive, countries must also reduce the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill to less than 10 per cent by 2035. The latest figures show the share of landfill in the EU has decreased from 24 per cent in 2017 to 18 per cent in 2020. They are on track. On plastic packaging, the EU recycled 64 per cent in 2021 and recovered 80 per cent. This compares with 22.4 per cent in Australia for 2020/21.  It’s clear the waste directives are working.    

Meanwhile, in Australia we have a long way to go. For example, we are yet to ban PFAS, something the EU did more than 20 years ago. Whereas we plan to commence this in 2025. Yet we continue with products placed on supermarket shelves in everything from food packaging and non-stick cookware through to dental floss and makeup. However, EPAs across the country require PFAS levels in organic material so low that it is not possible to comply. If it’s such a problem, why isn’t it banned completely at source? And why have we not been given the support to reject and charge for wrongly classified material being sent to recyclers? We need to share the risk and the cost with those that produce! 

The reality is that we can’t manage what we can’t see. 

All these issues like plastics must be dealt with appropriately by the entire supply chain – not just by us at the end of the proverbial road. And this doesn’t just apply to hazardous or toxic materials. It applies to all materials and products that must be designed well with recoverable, reusable and repairable materials/designs. That’s the point of the Directives. That’s why we are screaming out for them. Without them we have no hope of hitting 80 per cent by 2030. 

As Scotland’s Circular Economy Waste Route Map 2030 states “the way that material flows around the economy is complicated and influenced by everyone… achieving this transformation is a shared endeavour.” It goes on to state, “a circular economy can only be delivered through a Team Scotland approach, defined by collaboration and co-design. We can only be successful if everyone plays their part – government, households, communities, charities and businesses”. 

This is spot on. It does require a team effort, coupled with strong leadership from government to bring the team together. Who’s ready to sign up to Team Australia? 

Gayle Sloan, Chief Executive Officer, WMRR

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