APCO study shows only a third of Australia’s plastic packaging is recycled

APCO study shows only a third of Australia’s plastic packaging is recycled

March 4, 2019
Lloyd Fuller

Too much recyclable packaging is still finding its way into landfill – and plastic is the biggest culprit, with two-thirds going unrecovered, according to a new analysis from the University of Technology Sydney

Almost half of Australia’s packaging waste is not being recovered for recycling, according to a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) study that has tracked the fate of used packaging materials.

Data analysis
The analysis was carried out at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and published by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), a not-for-profit group that aims to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and is leading the effort to implement the National Packaging Targets. “To achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets, we need to first understand the journey materials take along the entire supply chain and establish a baseline of data to measure change and interventions,” revealed Brooke Donnelly, APCO CEO (pictured above). “This report, APCO Packaging Material Flow Analysis 2018, is the first step in this process.”

To achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets, we need to first understand the journey materials take along the entire supply chain

Overall, 56% of packaging was recovered for recycling in 2017-18. However, only 32% of plastic packaging was recovered for recycling whereas the figure for paper and cardboard was 72%.

Toward a circular economy
Used packaging materials such as glass, paper, metal and plastic make up 15% of all recyclable waste generated in Australia, according to the UTS calculations that were based on available government data. Hence by taking a snapshot of the country’s current performance in recovering these materials, the areas most in need of attention can be identified. This will subsequently help Australia work towards a ‘circular economy’ approach in which packaging materials are reclaimed, reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.

“There is great potential to step-up material recovery from the current overall recovery rate of 56% and at the same time increase demand for recycled materials to drive the transition to a circular economy for packaging,” agreed Dr Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS) and co-author of the report. “APCO, as the central product stewardship organization, is well placed to support this coordinated transition that involves cooperation between consumers, designers, recyclers and packaging manufacturers.”

There is great potential to step-up material recovery from the current overall recovery rate of 56% and at the same time increase demand for recycled materials to drive the transition to a circular economy for packaging

The chart in the image above shows that the most significant losses to landfill happen before waste is collected for sorting. Households and businesses are still throwing recyclable packaging, approximately 32% of total packaging consumed, into red bins instead of into recycling.

The 56% recovery figure includes packaging material recovered for export, as well as materials that are currently stockpiled. This includes glass which is not currently in high demand for local manufacturing.

Waste exports
Waste exported overseas represents a significant proportion – about 34% – of total packaging waste recovered. Evidently, there is a clear opportunity to improve local waste management practices and grow local demand for products that contain recycled materials. This would help make Australia’s packaging system more resilient to fluctuations in global markets.

The biggest recent market shock was the recycling crisis sparked by China’s decision to limit the imports of large amounts of recyclable materials.

In April last year, state and federal environment ministers and local governments reacted to that crisis with the launch of the National Packaging Targets, which included a pledge to pursue circular economy principles.

In practice, this means avoiding packaging waste, improving local recovery of recyclables, and increasing the demand for products that contain recycled materials. Already we have seen major brands such as Unilever commit to using at least 25% locally sourced recycled plastic in packaging such as shampoo bottles, which is a huge step in the right direction and aligns with the trending global agenda to eliminate plastic pollution.

However, developing a circular economy for packaging in Australia requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain. This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers and the resource recovery sector.

Better source separation is important, the authors suggested, and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle. These strategies are already supported by the new Australasian Recycling Label, which could potentially be mandated for all types of packaging.

Better source separation is important and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle

A further consequence of better source separation is a reduction in the contamination of the collected materials. This would improve the efficiency of the material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort the mixed recyclables into separate streams for reprocessing.

A better picture on the problem
What is also needed is more and better data on packaging consumption and recycling infrastructure capabilities. Some future actions are clear, such as addressing problematic plastic packaging. Other decisions that might involve broad systemic interventions need more information about the best way to encourage packaging circularity. Key to success will be the willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving. “We can’t implement effective and meaningful changes to the system if we don’t first have a complete and accurate picture,” concluded APCO’s Donnelly. “A collaborative approach will be critical to building this. The challenge ahead of us requires a complete transformation of the current system.”

The ‘circular economy’ is one of the key topics of discussion at Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019, which will take place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

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