Let’s not waste a strong economic opportunity

22 November 2019

Last week’s National Recycling Week was a reminder that recycling is the simplest and most effective way that all of us, as individuals, can help the environment. Aside from the obvious benefits that come from reducing litter on our streets and in our waterways, effective recycling can substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — by diverting material from methane-producing landfills and into lower emissions re-manufacturing — and decrease our reliance on virgin materials.

Millions of actions every day all add up to make a huge difference. Whether you are 5 or 85 years old, live in the city or in the bush, are a student, accountant or an Instagram star, you can do your bit for a cleaner, safer and better Australia by recycling.

Yet for all our good actions and intentions, average Australians can be forgiven for sometimes feeling discouraged. We see other countries around our region turning back containers full of our plastic and paper waste. Some residents of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and the ACT have been confronted by stories of their recycling being emptied into landfill alongside their other rubbish.

Of course, those headlines aren’t the full story. Australians still manage to divert almost 60% of our rubbish away from landfill. Hard working and passionate people in the recycling sector are achieving good outcomes in some areas, and Australian academics and entrepreneurs are at the forefront of recycling innovation.

We must not let ourselves treat the talk of a recycling crisis as an excuse to wring our hands and walk away. Instead, such challenges present an opportunity to re-think how we can be smarter about and do better with our rubbish.

The good news is that many of our challenges with recycling have a common cause: we tend to think of recycling in a limited way as an almost moral duty, rather than an economic opportunity. Often good intentions are not enough; we need to apply liberal economics to create good incentives.

To paraphrase a famous saying, waste is a terrible thing to waste. The conversation about managing our rubbish changes when we realise that, thanks to markets and technology, our trash is quite literally somebody else’s treasure.

Container deposit schemes now operate in some parts of Australia, including Queensland, where drink bottles and cans are worth 10 cents each if returned to a collection point. The evidence shows that far fewer of those redeemable bottles and cans are now littering our nature. No plastic bottle is safe if there is a school or Scout hall nearby, with entrepreneurial students looking to do some fundraising!

The fantastic charity OzHarvest is discovering similar outcomes when they teach Australians how, on average, each household is throwing out between $2200 and $3800 worth of groceries every year. More than half of the average kerbside rubbish bin in Australia is made up of organics, including food waste. When money is tight, a bit more planning to buy the right ingredients and use everything in the fridge can go a long way.

So, if economic incentives can really motivate people to think globally and act locally, how we do make the price signals even louder?

Firstly, we need to create demand and build better markets for recycled material. Government can a play a big role here. In particular, our roads and other infrastructure projects can utilise vast quantities of recycled materials. It can actually be cheaper to use crushed glass as road base than transporting sand or gravel from distant quarries.

Environment ministers of all the States, Territories and Commonwealth met this month and agreed to ambitious new targets for increasing recycled content in their procurement programs.  The Federal Government has committed to identifying infrastructure projects that can use a significant amount of recycled material, and to lead work to create standards that remove barriers to the use of recycled content by states, territories and local government.

Industry has a role here, too. Australia’s retailers and suppliers deserve credit for signing up to targets for all of their packaging to be 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 and for the packaging to be made from 30% recycled content.

Secondly, we need investment in Australia’s capacity to separate our waste into different commodities. Mixed rubbish has little value, whereas a bag of shredded PET plastic or a pallet of crushed aluminium cans is worth serious money.

Ultimately, we want to build a recycling industry onshore here in Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was thinking about these opportunities when he announced that Australia will stop exporting mixed plastics, tyres, paper and glass to other countries. He said: “It’s our waste. It’s our responsibility”. And it can be our economic opportunity too. We know that there are about 9 jobs created by recycling 10,000 tons of waste, compared to only 3 jobs if we put that waste into landfill.

Thirdly, better information helps. As products and their ingredients evolve rapidly, we know it’s not always easy to keep up with what can be recycled. That’s why our government is helping to roll out the new Australasian Recycling Label. It will help give you the confidence you need when you decide what to put in each bin, and reduce the contamination in our recycling streams, to ensure they retain maximum value.

This is the first time a federal government has been elected with a comprehensive $167 million package of policies to specifically improve recycling and reduce waste. The Coalition’s good economic management will not only build the circular economy but also protect our environment.

Trevor Evans is the Federal Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, and Federal Member for Brisbane.