Did you know that people have been recycling waste since ancient times?
Although humans have only started worrying about environmental concepts like climate change and greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the 19th century, recycling has always been around. Why is that?
The Environment Protection Agency defined recycling as “the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.”
With this definition, we can say that even before knowing about its environmental benefits, people have been recycling to save both energy and resources—basic economics. For instance, during the Han Dynasty, paper production used linen rags instead of debarking trees to cut off labour fees.
But as the world grew more aware of the environmental consequences of human activities, recycling evolved from being an option to something necessary for our survival.
Consequently, it’s been integrated into government policies and agreements among nations, including Australia.
Recycling in Australia
For Australia, recycling began with the establishment of its first recycling papermill in 1815. The mill used old rags to produce paper. This, later on, inspired Melbourne to collect waste paper from households and factories in the 1920s for paper production. Finally, the Canterbury Council paved the way for Australia’s comprehensive recycling by being the first municipality to segregate household wastes in 1975.
Australians are pretty good at segregating recyclables. The problem, however, is the completion of the recycling process. For many years, it has been selling and sending the wastes it segregated to developing countries for processing.
However, China, one of its significant acceptors of recyclables, recently denied Australia’s recycled wastes since they’re too contaminated. This badly hit Australia’s recycling industry.
Australia’s key recycling initiatives
Although Australia’s recycling is currently a hot mess, the Land Down Under has always been a huge fan of recycling and has implemented unique recycling initiatives promoting a circular economy. Some of the notable ones are:
- Kerbside Recycling Collection
Back in the 1950s, recycling was only observed through the peddler who collected scraps of metal. This was then expanded by the implementation of the curbside recycling scheme in the 1980s.
In this method, households are provided with bins for each type of recyclable waste. These wastes include metals, paper and cardboard, jars, and plastic containers. Soft plastics like candy wrappers are excluded. The residents then place these bins on the curbside for the fortnight collection.
- Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and Mechanical-Biological Treatment (MBT) Plants
The recyclables collected from kerbside bins have two destinations, the Material Recovery Facilities for a more meticulous selection of reusable items and MBT plants for low-grade recycling of mixed wastes.
Essentially, MBT separates functional materials, like organic and combustible wastes for industrial fuels, from unusable ones. On the other hand, MRFs clean and separate wastes into more categories (e.g. metals, paper, and plastics).
Recently, these facilities have become automated for more efficient operations. A facility in New South Wales (NSW) can even sort materials into eight types automatically using an intelligent light beam and high-pressure air jets.
E-waste such as your old phones and computers are not allowed in recycling bins, primarily due to their toxic built-in batteries. Consequently, some of these end up in landfills.
ABRI was established in 2008 to address this specific limitation. They provide proper battery recycling and packaging training, develop policies that promote the circular economy of battery production, and link citizens to various battery recyclers in Australia.
As mentioned earlier, China and other Asian nations’ refusal to process recycled paper and cardboard shook Australia’s recycling industry. Clearly, there’s a need to overhaul the nationwide recycling scheme.
In this light, the Australian government introduced the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020, which implements the waste export ban to encourage the domestic processing of recycled wastes.
To make this possible, the budget for the Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF) was increased. This will hopefully encourage private investments in recycling technologies.
Now, let’s see how these initiatives have been faring by looking at the Australian recycling statistics.
Australian recycling statistics
- Students in Macquarie University studied Sydney university students’ awareness, consumption, and recycling behaviour on e-wastes. Results show that 80.6% are aware of the harmful effects of e-waste. But, 16.1% never bothered to know about their disposal, and 57.3% were unaware of any drop-off points for e-wastes.
- A study by Pact Group revealed that 81% of Australians do not trust their recycling methods.
- A 2018 study published in the Molecular Diversity Preservation International journal revealed that 81.1% of construction industry employees still recycle at their workplace, although not often.
- For the 2018-2019 financial year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded that the country incurred $16,989 million in waste collection and disposal services.
- Currently, there are 193 MRFs in Australia. Most of these are hand-sorted, and nine are already fully automated.
- The waste material recovery rate is highest in metals (90%) and lowest in plastics, which only achieved 15%.
- According to the National Waste Report 2020, Australia generated 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, only 13% of this number was recycled, and 84% ended up in landfills.
- Six out of eight Australian states have committed to banning single-use plastics. South Australia, The Australian Capital Territory, and Queensland have already started this year. On the other hand, Western Australia and New South Wales are set to commence their commitment in 2021. Lastly, Victoria promised to begin in 2023.
Australia vs The World
- Australia’s recycling industry is in a mess with the imposition of China’s new acceptable contamination rates for plastic and fibre exports—less than 0.5%.
- In a recycling world ranking report of Eunomia, Australia only placed 21st with a 41% recycling rate. Germany took the lead with a stunning 66%.
Although Australia puts a strong emphasis on recycling, these numbers clearly show that it’s still falling behind. The government and private entities need to work together to develop a domestic recycling industry capable of completing the recycling process.
But, more importantly, you need to take your waste generation more seriously. Recycling should only be second to waste reduction as a solution to the growing waste management problem.