The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled

Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations. For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.

Driving recycling

We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.

In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.

Plastic not fantastic

In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.

Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.

The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.

We need a better target

We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.

For this to work, we would need three things:

  1. legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
  2. an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
  3. the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.

Finally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.

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