Biggest pressure on our environment comes from population and economic activity

TALKING RUBBISH: Policy makers and industry players in the resource recovery sector have had an interesting problem to solve. What name should we give to the latest strategy, action plan, framework, agenda, initiative or policy that’s about plastics and the environment?

Over the recent period, we’ve had: National Plastics Summit (Commonwealth), National Plastics Plan (Commonwealth), ANZPAC Plastics Pact (APCO on behalf of packaging supply chain members), National Plastics Recycling Scheme (Australian Food & Grocery Council), Plastics Recycling Results Roadmap (Australian Council of Recycling), various plastic bag and other item bans by various State Governments, and more.

Beyond the obvious problem of more duplication than at a twins convention, what does here? What is all this effort from governments and business – presumably on behalf of constituents and customers – about? Are these dozens of documents likely to have an impact – other than on our download speeds? How much plastics are we actually talking about and what is its environmental impact?

A long time ago, as a young soldier in the US Army, my unit got very lost and very discombobulated during night training in the sandy forests of Fort Bragg in North Carolina. For hours, we were lugging our full packs and weapons, and going in circles among the pine trees. Finally, an exasperated junior lieutenant had the guts (or stupidity) to ask the unit’s senior sergeant: “First Sergeant, can you please refresh the company on what the f@ck we are meant to be achieving?”.

That’s the core problem with plastics policy in Australia. While word-smithed objectives top every document, the actual goal of we’re meant to be aiming for is as clear as Sydney skies on backburning days. The muddle reflects that our society’s overall relationship with plastic can be described as “It’s complicated”.

Let’s get rid of marine plastics

This is a key driver for much of our collective effort, for example, the idea that plastic is killing marine creatures and we need to do something about it. There’s no doubt that plastic is accumulating in marine systems at an alarming rate of at least some 5 trillion metric tonnes a year, according to the US National Academy of Science; nor that that plastics load has an ecological impact through ingestion, entanglement and strangulation. It sucks.

However, according to the World Economic Forum, 90 per cent of marine plastic comes from 10 rivers: Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; Nile, and; Niger. Not via the Hawkesbury, Yarra or Swan. Not your bag from Coles or Woolies.

According to the World Economic Forum, 90 per cent of marine plastic comes from 10 rivers: Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; Nile, and; Niger. Not via the Hawkesbury, Yarra or Swan. Not your bag from Coles or Woolies.

While we surely live in an interconnected world with global responsibilities, the hard cold fact is that Australian derived plastic pollution’s impact on marine creatures is not significant.

Sure, “doing stuff about plastics”, like a Friday night shiraz at a country pub, might help relieve our urban guilt about consumption. That doesn’t make it effective or efficient. Indeed, public policy based on perceptions – such as international media images of dying turtles and dolphins – rather than evidence usually achieves something on the scale from bugger-all to nothing. We might feel better for having banned the bag, but let’s not pretend that we have necessarily saved any animals.

Want to really and immediately save animals? Tell your government to direct fund more clean-up technology at pollution sources in Asia and Africa. Make it about engineering not emotions.

We can use more recycled content or biodegradable plastic

The mantra from some stakeholders goes like this: “Look, plastic is useful and inevitable in contemporary economies. So, if we’re going to have it, let’s have a ‘better’ kind of plastic.”

And, there’s no argument that recycled content plastic is better from several environmental standpoints especially by not being made out of virgin oil in production.

So, in line with mantra, andfollowing Asia “just saying no” to many waste imports, North America, Europe and Australia are heavily investing in plastics reprocessing technology and plants, including the establishment of some 20 new recycled plastic manufacturing facilities in the USA (many with Chinese investors), and Australian-based companies like Cleanaway, Suez, Pact, and Re-Group receiving government funding for greater domestic reprocessing capacity for various plastics streams, including as part of the $600 million Recycling Modernisation Fund.

Seems sensible, right? There is no doubting the ability of Australian players to efficiently come up with better approaches and technologies to recover, clean up and use more plastics in new products here. But, here’s the rub: it’s all happening without a single piece of public analysis that addresses this kind of obvious question. Is it economically sustainable?

Another hard cold one coming at you: the price of virgin plastic is very low because there is ample global supply of oil and it takes very little energy and natural resources needed to produce it.

The price of recycled content plastic in Australia, on the other hand, is impacted by energy costs, labour costs, long-distance transport and logistics costs, disparate collection systems, and limited offtake demand/markets. It ain’t a fair fight and it’s why Australia’s plastics recycling rate is well under 20 per cent.

The OECD has long calculated and disclosed this basic imbalance and the need to fix it to globally move from virgin to recycled. That means what, exactly, for Australia? It means if consumers want recycled content plastics, they will ultimately need to pay for it – whether that’s through their taxes, rate, landfill levies, government subsidies to industry, product prices or otherwise etc. Market failures get solved with cash not “coordination, collaboration, and co-design across supply chains.”

Want better plastics and more domestic recycling jobs? Go to the supermarket and ask for the recycled content plastic bottle and be willing to pay a few cents more for it. Repeat many times.

Plastics policy helps the community contribute

Anybody who has hung out at the bar at waste and recycling conferences has had this conversation: “Yeah of course plastics isn’t the biggest deal in real environmental or even waste terms, but action is what the community wants.”

But because we wasties see ourselves as a little more important than PR people, some will add: “But we can use plastics as a way to influence their other behaviours toward greater sustainability.” Everybody happily nods and somebody hopefully orders another round.

Afterwards, somebody goes off and writes another briefing note for some minister to ban something – straws, bags, balloons, pen caps, or COVID masks (okay not them), or the balls kids play handball with at recess (okay not them either). “This is likely to lead to further awareness of and empowerment about other actions that the community can take to enact the waste minimisation hierarchy and participate in the circular economy,” the note might read.

It’s actually embarrassing that we demure to various bans when we directly know of and daily experience a whole range of other waste streams with a higher impact on the environment and human health.

Batteries, for instance, of which we recycle 3 per cent compared to Europe’s 70 per ce

What utter drivel. As an industry, we’re about as credible as those emails from Nigeria by giving in to this all-too-prevalent trope. It’s actually embarrassing that we demure to various bans when we directly know of and daily experience a whole range of other waste streams with a higher impact on the environment and human health.

Batteries – of which we recycle 3 per cent compared to Europe’s 70 per cent and which can blow up if not appropriately dealt with come to mind. It might be the right politics, but let’s stop pretending its actually good policy. It makes me blush.

Want to contribute? Recycle your batteries. And e-waste, white goods, personal transport vehicles, mobile phones, child safety seats, paint, mattresses and many other items with an arguably bigger impact than plastics.

Oh, I didn’t forget. The average Australian uses about 15 kilograms of plastic packaging per year. Consumption of single use plastic items is less than that. Meanwhile, something like 200 kilograms per year of fully recyclable material – your leftover food – keeps going into the rubbish bin and the tip where it pumps out this stuff you may have heard of: greenhouse gases. People! Priorities!

Pete Shmigel is a writer who is in recovery after 25 plus years of executive roles in politics, major corporates, consulting, charitable NGOs and the resource recovery industry. He likes bikes and has decided to recycle and repurpose them through the new start-up, Revolve Recycling.