This month saw the suspension of the REDCycle soft plastic recycling scheme, which operated in over 200 major supermarkets nationwide and significantly bolstered the “sustainability” credentials of Coles and Woolworths. While REDcycle’s efforts to divert a total of over 3600 tonnes of soft plastics from landfill since it was launched are admirable, this pales in comparison to the 336,000 tonnes of soft plastics used and that end up in landfill every year, which largely consist of packaging generated by supermarkets.

The collapse of the scheme was attributed to a rapid increase in uptake of the service among shoppers and fluctuating demand from recyclers. This revealed significant flaws in the sustainability of Australia’s emerging recycling industry. I say emerging because until about 5 years ago Australia adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to waste management by exporting most of its recyclable waste to countries like China, that is, until they rather abruptly said ‘no thanks’ with the introduction of the China Sword Policy.

At the root of this problem is the exponential increase in plastic consumption worldwide. The World Economic Forum advises that global production of 15 Mt in 1964 grew to 311 Mt in 2014, is expected to double again by 2034 and almost quadruple by 2050 (National Waste Report, 2020, pg. 96). In Australia there are no regulations or incentives to eliminate or reduce plastic (e.g. mandated minimum recycled content), as a result, the vast majority of plastic in Australia (85%) is not recycled and end up in landfill.

So where to from here? Australia is at a fork in the road when it comes to recycling and waste management. The path we choose to take (and more importantly, where we end up) depends on whether we decide to take advantage of the opportunity of recycling. I am inspired by the words of Peter Shmigel, former CEO of the Australian Council of Recycling who said, when speaking of the China Sword Policy:

“We shouldn’t resent the Chinese for what they’ve done – we should emulate them. It’s time to re-set and re-boot Australian recycling to be more resilient to global impacts. We can move from being mostly about “push” (collecting material) to more “pull” (using that material to make recycled content products in Australia as part of a more circular economy).”

It is important to acknowledge that even the momentous leaps in recycling technology and capacity cannot replace the need to reduce our overall consumption of single use plastics. The next critical challenge facing Australia is developing sustainable, domestic end markets for recycled materials.

Enter local Councils…

Councils can play a critical role in driving demand for recycled products, which are increasingly being used in construction materials and other manufactured building products. For example, the addition of recycled soft plastics has been shown to enhance the performance of asphalt and recycled glass is being widely used by Councils in Victoria and Sydney in place of sand in roads and footpaths. Recycled plastic is also commonly used to make manufactured products purchased by Council, including outdoor furniture.

Embracing sustainable procurement is not without its constraints. Recycled materials need to be available at the right time, in the required quantity and at a reasonable cost. They also need to perform at least equal to or better than non-recycled alternatives. Determining these factors takes time and Council already operates in a highly resource constrained environment with multiple staff vacancies.

However it is often said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, which is why I am introducing a Notice of Motion to this month’s Council meeting to increase our support to local waste reduction and circular economy initiatives, commit to purchasing more materials containing recycled content, and lobby State and Federal Ministers to address develop and support initiatives that enable Councils to overcome constraints to sustainable procurement.