The practice of industrial recycling can be traced back to 1815 when an Australian paper mill first started recycling rags to make paper. Australia’s first kerbside collection programme however was only introduced around the late 1980s following calls from the environmental movement.
Australia’s recycling rates have been steadily rising from 33% in 2007 to currently around 50%. This puts Australia ahead of the US (34%) though still a long way off the Australian Council of Recycling’s recommended target of 75%. In Europe, countries such as Austria and Netherlands currently recycle 60% or more of their municipal waste. According to the Australian Department of Environment, our greenhouse gas emissions from waste alone have fallen from 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent gas in 1990 to 10 million in March 2015. This is despite our population growth from 17.1 million to around 23.7 million over the same period – evidence that recycling has a role to play in reducing emissions.
For many materials, the process of recycling into useful raw materials is straightforward: metals are shredded into pieces, paper is reduced to pulp and glass is crushed into cullet. Metals and glass can be remelted almost indefinitely without any loss in quality. An aluminium can has potential to be recycled indefinitely and only takes 60 days before it goes back on the grocery shelf as another aluminium can.
However the nature of waste is changing, with more complex goods that contain multiple types of plastic, metals (some of them toxic). In 2010, the Australian Environment Minister endorsed the Australian Packaging Covenant which aims at encouraging businesses to design products with recycling in mind as well as more sustainable packaging to increase recycling rates and reduce packaging litter. The ultimate aim being the design of ‘closing the loop’ technology where the objective is for no waste to be left behind as landfill. More mature recycling facilities are also struggling to cope with the newer complex waste stream as their machineries are often ill-equipped to handle the newer materials. Remedying this problem requires not only capital investment to upgrade the recycling infrastructure but also more sophisticated technology to better identify the various materials in the sorting process.
In Australia, the recycling industry is a rapidly growing business, creating 8 times more jobs than the landfill industry. Environment Victoria estimates that 2,310 new jobs can be created in resource recovery in Victoria alone. This is part of the ongoing evolution of recycling that shows the potential opportunity for job creation, innovation and land fill reduction. Whilst progress in our recycling efforts should be applauded, we need to be careful about anecdotes such as “making cans from recycled aluminium requires 95% less energy than virgin stock” or that “recycling 30% of Australia’s waste is equivalent to removing 25 million cars from the road”. These sorts of statements, whilst deservedly boastful of what can be achieved, can be counterproductive if they end up changing our perception of waste as a problem and thus propelling society’s excessive overconsumption.
Given the majority of our seabirds are now known to have ingested some sort of plastic, and with carbon in the atmosphere set to reach dangerous levels, we would all be better off to refuse the can or bottle in the first place, turn off the TV and use the car less. The recent resurgence of the minimalist movement provides a timely reminder that recycling should still be viewed as second in line to the preferred environmental approach of reducing our consumption.