Planet Ark is celebrating 25 years since it founded National Recycling Week and looking back at how far Australia’s come.

In the past quarter century, Australia’s recycling rate has increased from just seven per cent, to 60 per cent, totalling roughly 43 million tonnes of materials recycled each year.

That means we’ve gone from recycling just 80 kilograms of material per person each year, to around 1700 kilograms.

“When National Recycling Week began 25 years ago there was very little kerbside recycling, and beyond that almost nothing,” Planet Ark co-chief executive Rebecca Gilling explained.

“Recycling was something that people did at the periphery. Now, when we survey people, over 90 per cent say it’s the first thing they do in the interest of the environment.”

Aussies are becoming more educated about which materials can cause issues in the system, including soft plastics, bagged recyclables and clothing. Nearly 1.5 million more Australians know to keep soft plastics out of the recycling bin in 2021 compared to 2019.

Much of that knowledge comes from school educational programs that Planet Ark continues to run, including the Schools Recycle Right Challenge which involves recycling themed activities, lesson plans and event ideas.

“What we’re trying to do is to get as clean streams as possible going to the recycling centres, because it’s a case of garbage in, garbage out,” Ms Gilling said.

With contamination to the recycling streams comes the potential for machines to get blocked requiring workers to manually intervene, adding up to become a major disruption.

“If you’ve ever been to a recycling centre you see that at the end of each shift, and sometimes even during shifts, they have to stop the machinery and people have to actually physically cut out plastic bags, clothing, the belts, all those things that get caught in the machinery and slow the whole process down,” she said.

Ms Gilling explained that with the recent refusal of overseas jurisdictions to take our recyclable goods anymore, Australia was feeling the pressure to clean up and better sort its recycling streams.

“I think the China ‘National Sword’ policy in 2018 was a watershed moment. Up until that point we had blithely continued to ship our recyclables overseas and they were accepted regardless of the levels of contamination. When the door closed on that we actually had to take responsibility for our own materials.”

The change prompted the government to act and support the industry in ways such as the Product Stewardship Investment Fund which provides grants of up to $1 million to help companies take responsibility for their products from the beginning to the end of life.

On top of Planet Ark’s longstanding printer cartridge and mobile phone initiatives, involving leading manufacturers, the group now participates in recycling projects for a range of household items such as televisions, computers, mattresses, bedding, paint, tyres, coffee pods, batteries and packaging.

Established in 1992, Planet Ark continues to evolve its strategies and this year is putting more focus on reuse through initiatives such as the Save Our Furniture competition, aimed at upcycling old furniture into new unique pieces rather than sending it to landfill.

Ms Gilling, who has been with the organisation for almost 20 years, said perceptions had changed and developed a lot, from recycling, to reuse, and reducing waste in the first place which she described as “ideal”.

“It’s really going back to my parents’ generation who were great ones for saving everything, for reuse, for repair. All of those sorts of approaches are now coming back into style,” she said.

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  1. “Recycling was something that people did at the periphery. Now, when we survey people, over 90 per cent say it’s the first thing they do in the interest of the environment.”

    There are MUCH more important and effective personal actions everyone who wants to fight climate change needs to take. These were identified in a paper* of 2017 – available open access – and are, in order of effectiveness:

    1. Have one less child
    2. Live car-free
    3. Avoid flying
    4. Eat a plant-based diet

    Recycling is NOT a very impactful action. Of course it has a part to play, but the emphasis on it diverts attention from much more impactful actions and results in people living high carbon lifestyles feeling that they’re doing alright by the planet.

    As the authors* say:

    “We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6?tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less). ”

    Recycling is popular with the public because it makes people feel they are fighting climate change, but its impact on the problem is minimal. It has been heavily pushed by packaging and plastics companies because it neatly transfers responsibility on to consumers rather than polluters of highly problematic products. I repeat: recycling is important, its great that Aussies are doing it, but it does NOT have a big impact on global warming.

    *Source: Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas (2017) The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 7.