hand holding discarded plastic cups
Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Australian Council of Recycling has placed at least part of the blame for excess packaging on consumers.

America’s recycling system, or lack thereof, was laid bare in a Four Corners report last week, exposing decades of spin that has created a “plastic crisis”.

If you caught the episode, you can be forgiven for questioning our recycling efforts here in Australia.

Differences between the states are narrowing by the minute and the plastic industry is rapidly expanding; walk into any store and packaging is inescapable.

The images of stockpiled plastic mounting in warehouses with nowhere to go, which emerged following China’s block to exports, has not helped the case either.

Aired in early August, PBS Frontline journalist Laura Sullivan unveiled a plastics industry that had championed recycling to ward off bans and clever marketing campaigns placing the burden of change on the consumer instead of big industries.

It is estimated no more than 10 per cent of America’s recycling has ever been recycled, a stark statistic Australia shares; the majority of plastic produced has never and may not ever be recycled.

 “Reduce, reuse, recycle” was a marketing ploy, not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured

Industry insiders revealed in the program how deceit in the marketing of plastics was a way to sell more.

And environmentalists fighting against waste since the 70s explained how society bought the recycling myth and unwittingly helped the effort.

“For the last 40 years, the conversation in [America] has been about the recycle part of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’… It was not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured,” environmental scientist David Allaway said.

Science says we need to significantly reduce our use of materials overall, he said, yet policy makers are still focused “with laser-like intensity” on recycling.

“There is nothing wrong with promoting recycling, except when it sucks all the oxygen out the room and nothing else is done.”

Sullivan uncovered a report dating back to 1973 that said the cost of new plastic is so low that separating plastic from other trash can’t be justified economically.

Ronald Liesemer, who was on the Council for Solid Waste Solutions from 1988 to 2001, confirmed not much has changed.

“One thing that is different is the actual ecological context is different, that we’re really bumping up against ecological limits… We can’t delay this for another 10, 20 years. For the oil and gas industry, the stakes are higher so we’re heading towards a real battle. This is it. This is the big war,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, said.

Crisis, what crisis? Oh that crisis

Australian Council of Recycling CEO Pete Shmigel, however, says the US documentary is flawed.

Flagging it as a “biased” and “highly inaccurate” report that’s “part of an anti-recycling narrative that people on the far-left and the far left have perpetuated”, he said there was no relevant comparison to Australia at all.

America’s system is “fragmented” and “uncontrolled”, he said, there is no national plan, no targets, no policy across the country, while Australia has all of those things.

But Australia is, in fact, in the grips of a crisis.

Australians used 3.4 million tonnes of plastics in 2017-18, and the volume is growing.

Similar to America, just 12 per cent of all plastic is recycled and only 20 per cent of plastic packaging is recycled, the rest goes to landfill.

Just over half of the plastic recovered is sent overseas to places like Indonesia where we hope it is being manufactured into usable products.

Despite millions and millions of dollars going towards making Australia more domestically sustainable, we are a long way off.

“Infrastructure investment, the right government policies, corporate leadership, all of that has to really come to the fore… No, we are not close to that but we are on the right path,” Mr Shmigel said.

“When you talk about plastics, it’s important we don’t demonise them right away but acknowledge they have utility in our society.

“Taking the position of, it’s all bad, let’s get rid of it, is just not realistic.”

Consumers can go to the organic place across the road and avoid packaging

This narrative sounded familiar. Jim Becker, Chevron Phillips Chemical Compay’s vice president of sustainability, had said in the report: “recycling has to get more efficient, more economic. We’ve got to do a better job collecting the waste, sorting it.”

Echoing the rhetoric used by big plastics companies in America to push the burden of responsibility onto consumers, Mr Shmigel said, “if we are concerned about our plastics as individuals we can every day decide not to use plastic.”

“I can go across the street right now and buy a packaged item or I can go to an organic store and buy a non packaged item. I have choice all the time.”

The big leverage is with producers, not consumers

But as the report highlighted in an interview with environmental scientist, David Allaway, ”when it comes to understanding and reducing the environmental impacts of materials including packaging, consumers have the lowest amount of leverage. The big leverage is with the producers.”

When asked why Australia shouldn’t be striving for zero plastic, or serious reductions, Mr Shmigel replied “because plastic is useful”.

He dismissed notions that plastics are filling our oceans at alarming rates, saying it was a “myth” with no scientific basis and said the “proportion of plastics in the environment is less than one per cent of all the plastic that is generated and used by us as humans on an annual basis”.

Mr Shmigel said that to focus only on that one per cent would be to lose focus on the balance of plastic pollution and solutions for that. Single-use plastic was just a small part of the overall problem, he said.

Forty percent of plastic produced globally is packaging, used just once and discarded. That equates to around 161 million tonnes compared to the 46 million tonnes that goes into products and 19 million tonnes that goes into electronics.

And the UN estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Plastic is an important and intrinsic part of our lives – as pointed out in a report by Bruce C Gibb – for use in building and construction, energy production, medicine and scientific research.

And there is no denying the important part the recycling industry plays in supporting jobs. The sector employs more than 50,000 people, here in Australia, and that is expected to double within the decade.

But with the necessary infrastructure, policy, and technology a far off reality by Mr Shmigel’s own admission, it is hard to downplay the importance of reduction.

Prefacing the Four Corners report, comedian and War on Waste host Craig Reucassel, said we’ve been told we can do our bit for the environment by recycling for decades.

But “the waste industry has had a dirty secret, with mountains of waste with nowhere to go.”

And as Paul Harvey, a researcher of Environmental Science at Macquarie University writes on The Conversation: “There are some single-use plastics we truly need. The rest we can live without.”

One thing Mr Shmigel did concede the report got right was recycling labels are confusing to consumers and need to significantly improve.

The Australian Council of Recycling, which is the leading national industry association for the recycling and resource recovery sector in Australia, will soon release an audit on labelling and make recommendations to the federal government, including the need for every packaged product to have a clear, consistent and evidence-based label.

“There is a strong case in Australia for a much more consistent, national, evidenced based way to label our products so consumers know what they are buying,” Mr Shmigel said.

“If consumers want something, they get it, if there is a strong outcry among consumers that says we want to know precise lifecycle analysis information about the environmental footprint, that ultimately happens.

“But I wouldn’t hold my breath in the meantime until consumers really stamp their feet.”

UPDATED 18 August 2020: This article has been slightly amended to reflect a more nuanced approach by Mr Shmigel on the Australian situation.

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  1. What a shock the Australian Council of Recycling is telling fibbs, it’s just a gang of plastic packaging operators with a phoney name attempting to engage in greenwashing their very dirty business.
    Ban all plastics excepting medical products with a regulated disposal system.
    All plastic packaging can be replaced by aluminium which is known to be fully recyclable and cost effective to recycle.
    The vast bulk of plastics produced are never recycled.

  2. Ahh the old consumer choice furphy. “Consumers are driving this – if you don’t want a plastic milk bottle stop buying them” they say. Sure, let me just pop down to the supermarket and see my choices…

    100% of the mil is sold in 2 litre plastic bottles. Hobson’s choice.

  3. From here in the States: It is worth mention that the consumer perception that recycling works is promoted by two things: 1) Taxing activities, such as a tax levied on each bottle or plastic bag for the purpose of recycling. 2)The various activities to separate out trash into landfill, recycling and (in some areas) composting. Both contribute to the perception that all this effort results in a robust recycling system. In reality, the tax funds are not creating recycling programs, as collection facilities have been shuttered, and separated trash is being recycled only to the extent that the US can offload it as ‘clean’, principally to the Chinese.

    1. Good to get these views from the US. Thanks Larry. But this propensity to hoodwink the consumer into complacency is a globalised epidemic (maybe our most destructive pandemic). We need to unpack the truth of these realities over and over again.

  4. The answer is to create product stewardship systems that create value in the waste stream and stop all this littering. The onus should be on mandating the non mandatory 2025 targets for the use of recycled materials in packaging.

    Plastic recyclers have gone bust for lack of cheap renewable power in our best performing states. We need to partner waste to energy facilities that generate cheap renewable power (by only burning the landfilled waste streams) and use this to build our own manufacturing industries (where the demand is able to justify the investment).