Is plastic a trash or a treasure? Surveying the detritus left by any crowd, it’s hard not to see it as a scourge. Other people’s garbage is an ugly sight. But let’s not forget how plastic has improved our standard of living at a very low cost. Plastic is popular because it is efficient. 

What to do with it when it’s no longer needed is the problem.

Councils provide huge yellow bins so we can get rid of paper, metal, glass and plastics with a clean conscience. Where does it go? Until not that long ago, a lot of it was bailed up and sent to Asia, where it was largely sold to small-scale waste merchants.

This international trade in useless plastic was fast and loose, with contaminants such as broken glass and other rubbish mixed in. When you are paid by the weight, that suits the seller. At the buyers’ end, it meant recyclables deemed too dirty for processing were disposed of any which way. 

Believe it or not, however, there is a global shortage of throw-away bottles.

China was a major buyer of our discarded plastic, but the plastics recycling industry there is vast and runs on thin margins. If it takes too long to clean dirty items from bails of imported waste, who can say they weren’t dumped down a ravine? The fact that eight of the 10 rivers in the world that contribute to plastics in the ocean are in Asia goes to show that contaminated items often found their way into waterways.

In an effort to staunch this externality the Commonwealth government banned the export of plastic waste after the United Nations passed a resolution which set a binding target on ways to stop its accumulation in oceans. Australia’s waste is now Australia’s problem. 

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) is working with governments to encourage industry to only sell goods in packaging that is recyclable, reusable or compostable. By 2025, it wants 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted and 50 per cent of new packaging to be recycled material. These are lofty targets, considering that just 16 per cent of plastic packaging was recovered in 2019-20.

Too good to throw away

Plastic bottles, pots, wrapping and everything else might seem like garbage as soon as we’ve enjoyed their contents, but Nextek CEO and founder Edward Kosior says these carbon-based items are valuable. 

“We keep thinking of plastics at the end of life as waste we can do nothing with,” Kosior says. “That is something we really have to change.”

This “zero waste policy” may be coming to Australia, where waste-to-energy plants are being built in Perth and Queensland, but have been deemed too risky by the NIMBYs of Sydney, the NSW Southern Highlands and Castlemaine in Victoria.

To throw out a plastic pot and replace it with another one means using oil. But plastic is a resource, as much as oil is, and should be recovered for reuse. 

In Australia, recovered plastics are sent to recycling plants to be separated into the major categories: flexible films; containers made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate); containers made from HDPE (high-density polyethylene); and containers made from polypropylene (PP). Examples, in that order, are plastic bags, drink bottles, milk bottles and yoghurt pots. All three of the hard plastics can be recycled.

The PET circle 

About half of the PET containers sold are sent on to recyclers to be made into food-grade packaging.

Kosior’s company designed a PET recycling plant for Pact, which opened in Albury-Wodonga in February, capable of taking about 30,000 tonnes a year (around 1 billion bottles), he says. Partners in the plant include Cleanway, Coca-Cola and Asahi.

“That’s a perfect circle,” he says. “[Coca-Cola and Asahi] make the product and it goes back into their manufacturing processes to make new packaging.” Visy operates a Sydney plant that recycles PET into food-grade packaging and two plants are being developed in Victoria.

In Holland, recyclers go as far as to open rubbish bags and pull out aluminium, glass, paper and plastics, separating them from organics that are sent into a biodigester to produce methane for energy production.

All this new development has been prompted by the export ban. Believe it or not, however, there is a global shortage of throw-away bottles. 

“Every company wants to use recycled PET in its packaging,” Kosior says, and so a recycled PET item costs more to make than a new one. 

“The process of recycling is not expensive and if the collected bottles are low cost, you could easily make it [more cheaply] than virgin plastic.” 

Keep in mind that about half of all PET bottles are thrown out with the trash, not recycled. “That’s where we have a bit of a problem.”

All those plastic bags

Flexible films, such as stretch wraps used to hold pallets of groceries together, are recycled in Australia. 

It’s a patchy stream, however, where wrappers on goods and food come in multiple compositions and often end up in domestic bins because they are seen as too mucky to bother washing and recycling.

“Significant amounts of soft plastics still end up placed in kerbside recycling, causing the double issue of potentially contaminating an otherwise recoverable load of recyclable materials, while also preventing these soft plastics from being recovered [via collections at Coles and Woolworths supermarkets],” says APCO chief executive Brook Donnelly.

In England, every plastic milk bottle is at least 30 per cent recycled HDPE, a standard set about 14 years ago. The same thing needs to happen here.

These films can be recycled, but mostly they are sold to recyclers to be made into other things. 

“There is a very, very small market for [recycled flexible film],” says David Hodge, managing director of Plastic Forests, a NSW company that turns flexibles into park benches and fence posts. “You’ve got to be able to make large, blended products.” 

Hodge says there is no mechanical process to recycle flexibles into food-grade film. “You’ve got the [food industry] buying virgin every week, unable to do a circularity,” he says.

Flexibles are generally covered in ink, for branding, which degrades any mechanically recycled second-life version.

Shoppers will also have noticed plastic bags are becoming more sophisticated. These sturdy pouches of stock or soup, however, can include up to nine layers of different polymers. “That’s great, because it keeps the food fresh and doesn’t tear … but it is unrecyclable,” Hodge says, unless you use chemical recycling — which is expensive.

In March, Australian company Samsara raised $4 million towards developing technology it says can reduce used polymers into constituent monomers, used to produce new plastic. The process (a new era of “infinite recycling”, the company says) will be able to manage multi-layered plastics. 

As for recycling flexibles into food-grade wrapper, Donnelly points to encouraging research and development at Nestlé’s Australian operations.

Families may be getting the grasp of sending more plastic off for recycling, but there must be a big enough market to take products made with recycled plastic.

Trouble is, it’s expensive.

If a council must choose between wooden bollards for the perimeter of a pitch or ones made of recycled plastic that cost more, Hodge says, then the market will be stacked against a solution that makes use of crappy old shopping bags. 

Bottles, tubs and pots

Many dairies these days are bottling their produce in HDPE bottles made of up to 30 per cent recycled content, processed at Visy’s Sydney plant.

In England, every plastic milk bottle is at least 30 per cent recycled HDPE, a standard set about 14 years ago. The same thing needs to happen here, Kosior says. It might mean vivid colours in packaging are toned down to neutral greys common for recycled plastics, but that’s a challenge clever marketing departments will no doubt be able to manage. In Europe, such packaging is becoming a signature of environmental responsibility.

Shoppers will also have noticed plastic bags are becoming more sophisticated. These sturdy pouches of stock or soup, however, can include up to nine layers of different polymers

It’s a different story for polypropylene containers (think yoghurt, olives and takeaway dinners), which too many of us chuck in the bin.

It’s a sin, because the sturdy plastic is extremely useful. Some companies turn recycled polypropylene into car parts, crates or pallets, all long-lasting commodities.

“It’s a great material with lots of uses but it’s been ignored as a material for recycling — up until now,” Kosior says, indicating that the recycling industry is starting to get serious about polypropylene.

Burn it and turn it

Household trash sacks contain many tonnes of dirty secrets, including plastic that would be fit for recycling.

In Holland, recyclers go as far as to open rubbish bags and pull out aluminium, glass, paper and plastics, separating them from organics that are sent into a biodigester to produce methane for energy production.

Recovered recyclables are sold and what’s left over is sent to waste-to-energy plants, the equivalent of an industrial incinerator that turns heat into electricity and where a fly ash byproduct is used as a building material.

“There is a big realisation happening right now in Europe,” says Kosior. “They’re saying, if you’re putting it in the bin, it’s going to the waste-to-energy plants.” 

This “zero waste policy” may be coming to Australia, where waste-to-energy plants are being built in Perth and Queensland, but have been deemed too risky by the NIMBYs of Sydney, the NSW Southern Highlands and Castlemaine in Victoria. 

Plastics have the energy content of coal, so a plant will generate more electricity if it is fed more contaminated plastic. But if plastics are taken out of the waste fed to furnaces, the plants can burn through rubbish at a faster rate. As Europe targets net-zero emissions by 2050, waste-to-energy plants will have to adapt.

“Hopefully, we will learn from Europe,” Kosior says, and plastics will be removed from red-bin waste sent to waste-to-energy plants as they slowly pop up around the country. If we don’t, emissions still make it into the atmosphere. “We can massively reduce global emissions if we are much more diligent about recycling.”

UPDATE 10 MAY 2022: The Albury PET recycling plant’s capacity is around 30,000 tonnes per year, or around 1 billion bottles, not 30,000 items.

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