Inside Story

When targets run up against reality

Australia’s recycling ambitions aren’t being matched by action

Mike Steketee 9 September 2021 1642 words

Target trouble: prime minister Scott Morrison during a tour of the Visy recycling facility last October. Darren England/AAP Image

You may have gained the impression that the Morrison government has an aversion to setting targets.

Nothing could be further from the truth. True, it only has one outdated target for tackling climate change. This is the one the government keeps insisting we are meeting and beating — although that depends on how you measure emissions and, even then, is more a commentary on the target’s inadequacy than a heroic achievement. But in some other areas it shows no such reluctance.

Take our national waste policy, adopted in 2019. While it isn’t as high-profile an issue as climate change, waste is of vital importance in its own right and also has implications for climate change: the less waste we recycle or otherwise recover, the more greenhouse gases we emit. Unless we become responsible for our own waste and aim for a “circular economy” that keeps resources and materials in use as long as possible, the realities of our polluted planet will catch up with us, just as they have on climate change.

The national waste policy has a target of reducing the total waste generated in Australia by 10 per cent per person by 2030. Another aims for an 80 per cent diversion from landfill by 2030. All “problematic and unnecessary” plastics, such as polystyrene and PVC, are to be phased out by 2025 and the amount of organic waste sent to landfill halved by 2030. Waste exports are to be banned by the middle of 2024 and another target, though without a date, would see governments and industry significantly increasing their use of recycled content. All these targets have been endorsed by state and territory governments, which are mainly responsible for achieving them, although they also retain their own, often more conservative, goals.

But wait, there’s more. The packaging industry, with the support of governments, has set particularly ambitious national targets, all to be met by 2025. By then, all packaging would be reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70 per cent of plastic packaging would be recycled or composted, and all packaging would include 50 per cent recycled content.

The impetus for the national targets was China’s decision in 2017 to stop importing much of our waste. Scott Morrison decided to make a virtue of necessity by banning the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, a decision that was finally incorporated in legislation last year that phased in the ban over three years.

The prime minister told the world all about it in the course of spruiking his green credentials at a special meeting of the UN General Assembly on climate in 2019. Morrison also boasted about how Australia was taking “real action,” but of course he didn’t have much of a story to tell in comparison with other nations.

Just what the gathered leaders made of the Australian prime minister devoting a good part of his address to plastic pollution, waste recycling, marine biodiversity and our opposition to whaling is unrecorded, but it’s possible there may have been some eye rolling, particularly when they were digesting his typically immodest claim that Australia was taking the lead on plastics pollution and recycling.

Still, there has been some follow-through. The export ban has been legislated. The government convened a national plastics summit last year and another is planned on national plastics design. We even have an assistant minister for waste reduction and environmental management, Trevor Evans, who is in his second term as the member for Brisbane. He may not be a household name, but he has won praise from the recycling industry. The government has even put some money where its mouth is, including $190 million over four years to subsidise modern recycling plants. It says this will increase the amount of plastic, paper, glass and tyres recycled by 645,000 tonnes a year.

But despite many announcements and much rhetoric, the shine quickly wears off when it comes to results.

The starting point, according to the government’s own figures, is that Australia throws away more and recovers less than many other developed countries. On average, each Australian generates 2.13 tonnes of waste annually, including from business and construction. On best estimates of available international figures, this compares to 1.26 tonnes in Singapore, 1.8 tonnes in Britain and 1.9 tonnes in Norway. (Not surprisingly, the United States comes in at 2.34 tonnes.)

Of these totals, 704 kilograms per capita went to landfill in Australia, compared with just 119 kilos in Singapore, 360 kilos in Britain, 514 kilos in Norway and 771 kilos in the United States. Australia’s overall recycling rate of 66 per cent (though less for households) looks respectable beside these countries, but less so when energy-from-waste projects are included. These barely exist in Australia, whereas in Singapore 91 per cent of waste is diverted from landfill through recycling or recovery for energy, and in Britain 80 per cent and Norway 73 per cent.

Of all the targets announced, only one can actually be enforced — the export ban. All the others are voluntary, reflecting how Liberal governments, state and federal, prefer to avoid regulatory burdens on business. A fine aspiration, perhaps, except for the long history of the failure of voluntary standards.

According to the latest National Waste Report, commissioned last year by the government from consultants Blue Environment, total waste per person rose by 3 per cent in the two years after the baseline year of 2016–17, which is not a good start to achieving a 10 per cent reduction by 2030. The resource recovery rate — the amount of waste diverted from landfill — had increased by 1.8 percentage points to 62.6 per cent, which suggests Australia will also fall short of the 80 per cent target for 2030. Organic waste sent to landfill had fallen by 2 per cent over two years, another slow start to the 50 per cent reduction target.

Perhaps the pace will pick up. But China’s import bans have created a major problem: they have sent Australian prices for recyclable waste plummeting, resulting in stockpiles of recycled goods, increasing amounts going to landfill and the collapse of a major recycling company, SKM. This is even though, four years after China announced its ban, our export ban only started phasing in this year.

On the latest monthly figures, for April this year, waste exports were worth $322 million, well above the average in recent years of $245 million. While exports to China have fallen to 10 per cent of their previous levels, those to Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have been increasing. And although exports of glass and mixed plastic waste have gone down in line with the phasing in of the bans, those for sorted plastics have been rising because of strong demand and high prices overseas.

It will be another three years before the export ban is fully implemented, and even then some of the largest categories, such as metal, won’t be covered. Neither will some plastics, provided they are sorted sufficiently to meet overseas specifications. Taking responsibility for our own waste obviously has its limits.

Building up the domestic industry will take time and money. The industry says the extra 645,000 tonnes of recycling created by the Morrison government’s $190 million contribution to new infrastructure is only 5 per cent of the growth in recycling needed to reach the 2030 target of 80 per cent waste diverted from landfill. The impact will be larger if the government succeeds in convincing the states and industry to each match its funding.

Most of the plastic we put in our yellow bins and the plastic bags and wrappers we take to the supermarket are recycled, although some of it is too contaminated. But despite our diligence, this accounts for only 15 per cent of the total plastics used in Australia and only about 6 per cent of soft plastics. All states and territories have banned single-use plastics or announced that they will do so, which is the gold standard since it removes them from the waste stream altogether. But plastic production is still galloping ahead: global production grew from an estimated fifteen million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is expected to double again by 2034 and almost quadruple by 2050. On present trends, the world’s oceans will contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025. By 2050, plastic will outweigh fish. Just what the Australian leadership promised to the United Nations can achieve remains to be seen.

Progress in the states is slow, too. A review commissioned by the Australian Council of Recycling reported last year that the only state to meet any of its past targets was South Australia — and then in one case only, diverting 75 per cent of commercial and industrial waste from landfill, where it achieved 82 per cent. With few exceptions, none of the states or territories had much prospect of meeting future recycling targets.

New South Wales, for example, was recycling 42 per cent of its municipal solid waste in 2017–18, less than seven years earlier, and the report judged it unlikely to achieve its 2021–22 target of 70 per cent. Queensland did worse: it had lower targets to start with but still failed to meet any of them. Despite actually lowering its target for recycling municipal solid waste from 55 per cent to 50 per cent, it had still only managed a 31 per cent reduction by 2018, according to the latest available figures.

Admirable as the national targets are, relying on voluntary compliance means they are little more than wishful thinking. To take one example, governments have resisted requiring minimum recycled content in products. Why would manufacturers bother when virgin plastic is still cheaper than recycled versions? Rules and specifications prevent the use of recycled products in some major areas such as infrastructure and building. “What is the point of reprocessing recyclables so they can be made into new products if there is not sufficient demand for the products?” asks Jeff Angel, executive director of the Boomerang Alliance of fifty-two environmental and community groups.

We may be heading in the right direction but we are doing so far too slowly. Does that sound familiar? •