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We are all responsible for the recycling crisis

Recycling is not free, as the dramatic closure this week of SKM, a major recycling company has shown.

In Australia, residents pay a council rate for recycling and garbage services. The fee is determined by the cost of collection, sorting, and processing, as well as the likely return from the sale of the final product.

Since 2017, however, the price of mixed plastics on the open markets has dropped by about A$325 a tonne down to A$100 a tonne. The value of mixed glass dropped to zero, meaning that generators could be paying to have it removed.

Read more: Indonesia has sent Australia’s recycling home – it’s time to clean up our act

On the other hand, prices for high-quality recycling (not mixed materials or items contaminated with food, for example) largely remained the same or slightly increased .

The market for poorly sorted, low-quality recycling that Australia previously exported to China and other Southeast Asian nations is closing.

We must send more recyclable materials to landfills if we don’t improve our recycling industry. This is what is happening in some Victoria councils.

Reduce first

Prior to recycling, reduction is the most important factor. Must be the first to eliminate waste in homes and businesses.

We, as consumers, should speak out against businesses that engage in seemingly contradictory business practices. As an example, supermarkets tout their efforts to reduce plastic bags but use small plastic toys for marketing purposes – without even using recycled plastic. These toys will be thrown away, contaminating the recycling stream, and some consumers may not be happy.

Coles and Woolworths both boasted about their efforts to eliminate single-use plastics, but they still use cheap toys in marketing campaigns. AAP Image/Peter Rae

Recycling should be disposed of properly

If you’re not sure if something is recyclable, it’s tempting to just throw it in the yellow bin, and hope that someone else will “sort it” out. In reality, incorrectly reprocessed material can contaminate whole loads of recyclables that would otherwise be valuable and useful, and divert them to landfill.

The councils are the ones who blame the recyclers, and the recyclers in turn blame the councils. All parties blame state governments and then recyclers.

We, as waste generators, must take on a great deal of responsibility. We are the ones who introduce contaminants into the system of recycling that all other members of the management structure have to deal with.

Read more: Australian recycling plants have no incentive to improve

It’s our job to familiarise ourselves with what can and cannot be recycled – although, to be fair, this can vary widely from council to council, and should be made easier to check.

We can increase the market and price of these commodities if we clean up our recycling streams. It encourages the industry to upgrade their plant technology and to attract others into a more competitive marketplace.

Develop the Industry

Profitable clean recycling requires a market that is established. The government, as Australia’s largest purchaser, can play a key role in this.

The Victorian government has already committed in order to help government agencies increase recycled material in their purchase requirements. Other governments are also doing the same, and this is an excellent step.

Contracts and tenders must specify the level of recycled material used in products sold by the government or give preference to suppliers that have recycled content.

Read more: We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’

One innovative approach where governments can use their purchasing power is with the use of plastic and glass recyclables in roads. Trials have been extremely positive.

The Australian Council of Recycling has stated that the use of recycled materials in the construction of the Snowy 2.0 Scheme would consume all recyclables produced in Australia.

You need to chew gum and walk it

There is no one solution to Australia’s recycling woes. We need to be more careful about what we throw away. Australian governments should encourage local manufacturers to recycle at home.

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Jane S. King

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