Making plastic recycling work is far from straightforward, resulting in more plastic waste now than ever before. Even new government regulations intended to solve the problem have raised many questions about their likelihood of success
RECYCLING: In 2025, the Federal government is introducing a National Plastics Target for companies to follow in Australia around their plastic use and its waste disposal problem.
The new targets include:
- 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging
- 70 per cent of plastic packaging being recycled or composted
- 20 per cent of average recycled content included in packaging
Since the start of 2021, a lot of attention has been given to these goals, however there remains a considerable amount of confusion as to what it will really mean for plastic waste.
Can plastic be recycled?
When we think of recycling, we think an item being made into new things over and over again. Plastic however can only be recycled 2-3 times before it needs to be disposed of.
Therefore, we should not believe we can quickly go down a path that will solve all our plastic problems if we recycle it all. This has been tried many times in the past and it has failed every time. Very often all that recycling is doing is delaying the inevitable of disposal meaning we have more waste plastic now than ever before in spite of all previous good intentions.
Plastic is generally down cycled not recycled. Down cycled is used to produce less technical more simple uses like clothes, furniture, or roads.
What is reusable?
The term reusable is commonly associated with reusing the product for another purpose or by another person. In many of the applications being branded as recycling, they are more of a material reuse.
Here, the plastic product is reprocessed into another one-time application after which the material is no longer suitable for any other use. For example, putting plastic waste in roads. In these applications the plastic material is not part of the circular recycling economy.
Many of the “recycling” mentions in the media these days really fall into the category of material reuse. It is important to make this distinction as in a circular economy not much in the way of virgin materials would need to be introduced. In a material reuse economy, there will still be considerable virgin materials required to replace the products lost from the recycling loop.
Australia is a smallish economy which limits the size of its industry types. What may be recyclable in a large overseas economy will not necessarily be recyclable here. What will happen to the plastic waste from companies who will not follow the targets?
Compostable plastics, sounds good?
These are not recyclable with other plastics. They are to be disposed of after their use. They are a linear economy, Make-Take-Waste just like we have done for the last 70 years with conventional plastic. This constant manufacturing of disposable items also contributes to high energy use and ultimately climate change
There are two grades of compostable plastic. Commercial compostable and home compostable.
Commercial compostable is not so consumer friendly as it has to be disposed to a special facility kept at high temperatures for it to biodegrade. There is no infrastructure to collect commercial compost plastic, nor is there a required marking on the product to let consumers know it has to go to commercial facilities.
If a commercial compostable plastic is put in a rubbish bin and that goes to a landfill, it is too cool there for the necessary microbes to biodegrade it away.
Home compostable is more friendly to the user as it can be disposed of in a rubbish bin or a home compost bin. It will biodegrade away relatively quick in either location. Home compostable is plant based, however it is still more than 50 per cent fossil fuel based with PBAT material required to allow it to biodegrade at ambient temperatures.
70 per cent of plastic packaging being recycled or composted
How we can get from the current 4.3 per cent recycled to 70 per cent in 3 years when it took us decades to get to 4.3 per cent in the first place? This requires getting plastic waste back from millions of users and being sorted into the various plastic types, and the various colours, processing them, and finding new markets for them. There is very little infrastructure in place to do this at the moment and it will take a long time to set this up and incentivize users to use it.
All this has to be achieved while remaining competitive to imported virgin plastic. This is an enormous task and if we look at history as a guide, then it says we are highly unlikely to get there.
A recent statement by the Ellen MacArthur foundation states, “for many years to come, mechanisms that ensure dedicated, ongoing, and sufficient funding will be necessary to cover that net (reprocessing) cost”.
“Without such funding mechanisms, it is unlikely that packaging collection and recycling will scale to the extent required, and tens of millions of tonnes of packaging will continue to end up in the environment every year.”
Compostable packaging will need to be correctly disposed of after use for it to biodegrade.
The national plastics plan still has an allowance for plastic to be “recycled” as being sent offshore to other countries. The regulations first read as being tight on this, but a lot of the compliance seem to be self-issued compliance.
Again, when we look at history, there are numerous cases of operators rorting the system to avoid compliance costs. Will things be any different this time is the question?
50 per cent of average recycled content included in packaging
Australia imports a lot of packaged items. How is a small economy like Australia to mandate this on imported packaging? While encouraging Australian manufacturers to include recycled content in their products is a great outcome, the impact on the overall situation is likely to be small.
The cost to manufacturers to change over their production lines to sourcing, using recycled content and guaranteeing the finished products properties will be substantial.
Another consideration that is not openly discussed which could potentially have costly ramifications is, who is going to be responsible for the purity and integrity of the packaging? If there was a food contamination issue or if the recycled packaging fails somehow and the product spoils then who is responsible?
There is no doubt that we need to address the issue of plastic consumption and how to properly dispose of it. For many years this has not been addressed in Australia in spite of overwhelming evidence to say plastic waste reform has been needed.
2025 will introduce some new goals for industry, however with out a mandate and considerable support we will more than likely be having the same discussion when 2025 has long passed down the road.
Dr Ross Headifen is the co-owner of biodegradable products manufacturer Biogone, as well as makers and suppliers of sustainable products for the environmental industry, Fieldtech Solutions.