Once a fortnight in my street, and in many streets around the country, people roll out their recycling bins for collection. Kerbside recycling is now the norm for many people, despite only being introduced in most areas during the 1980s or later. People are generally well accustomed to paying attention to what materials their waste is made from, and sorting into the appropriate bin. But situations change, and I think it is time to rethink our attitudes and approaches to recycling.
You may have heard that from Jan 1st 2018, China stopped accepting a range of recyclable materials from Australia. This means that an estimated 619,000 tonnes of stuff that used to be shipped away for China to deal with (e.g. China would recycle plastic into things like rubbish bins), now has to be managed in some other way. Under the previous process, recyclable material would have made a chunk of money for those in the recycling industry – around $500 million dollars a year (for 600,000 tonnes). But now the recycling industry and people within local councils (who collect, sort and manage waste collection) are scrambling to figure out what to do next.
One of the consequences of China’s import ban is that some municipalities might start sending the contents of kerbside recycling bins straight to landfill. Blergh. What a waste. All those jars, cans, bottles, paper and other recyclables that were rinsed, sorted and put in the recycling bin by YOU – now sent to landfill with the rest of the waste from regular waste bins. So far, Ipswich City Council, southwest of Brisbane, has stopped kerbside recycling (although the latest news is that they may have reversed this decision). There is a risk that other councils will retract their kerbside recycling if costs become untenable (in the absence of the cheap, send-to-China option).
Many councils are stockpiling; hoping and waiting for a local solution to recycle or manage recyclables in a way that avoids landfill. But stockpiling can get expensive and hazardous, and local recycling solutions are few and far between. Councils might start increasing household rate prices to deal with the increased quantity of recyclable material that has to be managed locally. Others might beg the state and federal governments for money to fill the gap. But that won’t solve the longer-term issue of what to do with all the recyclable waste material generated by people in Australia each year.
There have also been whispers of new ‘waste to energy’ schemes being established in Australia to deal with ‘residual waste’ (i.e. waste left over after recyclable material is sorted out). Even the national environment minister is keen on the idea. This might follow along lines of waste to energy plants in Europe and elsewhere. But these, are, in my view, not sustainable long-term solutions. Waste-to-energy plants do little to discourage consumption of harmful plastics and other materials, because those materials are what keep the power plant operating. Waste-to-energy systems do not reflect a closed-loop system, but rather, a slightly elongated linear one. And they still produce waste (approximately 25% of the volume of waste inputs are outputted as a toxic ash, for landfill). We need to do better.
We CAN do better!
The solutions are already all around us. Zero waste solutions, particularly those that provide ways to refuse or reduce quantities of certain types of packaging and waste, can empower you to avoid all this recycling (and landfill) malarkey altogether. And you can start now.
You don’t have to wait for your local council to act. You don’t have to ‘wait and see’ if new recycling plants will be built in Australia, or wait for waste-to-energy plants to be built to deal with all your waste. You don’t even have to wait for some magic plastic-eating enzyme product to hit the shelves. There are actions that can be taken immediately to address the problem of the millions of tonnes of waste going to landfill and recycling. Try these:
- Make that decision to commit to avoiding waste. Not just for straws or plastic bags, but for all the things you consume, including those items whose packaging you were normally put to recycling. It’s not as difficult as you might think. Once you’ve made that conscious decision to actively avoid waste (including excess recycling), then many of the other answers you need are out there!
- Get informed! Join your local zero waste group. And if you don’t have a local group, Zero Waste Tasmania (which we run), accepts people from all over.
- Scout around for alternatives. Think hard about what foods and ‘stuff’ you really need to keep you well-fed and happy. Can you find packaging-free alternatives? Or if you can’t find packaging free options, can you use your own packaging, or only buy compostable packaging.
- Get composting – for many people, more than half of their waste comes from food scraps and organic matter. If you can nail a good composting system that suits your home context, then you might be able to halve your waste!
- Get talking! The solutions that work for one person don’t necessarily work for everyone. So, talk with your family and friends, your local shop keepers, your social network, and help each other problem solve ways to reduce or avoid certain types of packaging. Think of refillable options instead of single-use, look for home-compostable packaging over plastic, and consider home-made snacks and sweets (or bulk bought ones in your own bags) over plastic-wrapped ones. If you’re stuck, ask online – and the hive mind of your zero waste group will respond, often with more ideas than you can poke a stick at!
- Get activisty! Speak up and write to government representatives, businesses and product manufacturers and tell them what changes you'd like to see that help to reduce waste. What products do you think should be better regulated or banned, and what packaging needs to be replaced or eliminated? What other positive actions can you encourage?
The previous situation (sending our recycling to China) was not environmentally sustainable. I mean really, how many plastic rubbish bins do we need in the world? The current post-import-ban situation is also not good, but it is prompting Australia to take more responsibility for its own waste – its own mess. Let us not fall back on harmful, out-of-sight-out-of-mind solutions such as stockpiling and waste-to-energy. Let us use this as a flag to pay more attention to our own waste, and to look for ways to avoid it in the first place. We live in such a geographically large country that recycling is inevitably limited in its efficiency, due to long transport distances and hence, fossil fuel inputs, involved. All the more reason to reduce and avoid waste in the first place.
Oh, and the photo above, shows our little owlet holding the sum total of one year of our recycling. What is more significant is what you don't see - 26 recycling bins of recycling avoided, for each year that we have lived waste-free. This waste-free lifestyle has proven to be quite easy for us, and so we think it is totally doable for many other people in Australia to live similarly, by applying solutions that work for their own circumstances.
This Sunday is Earth Day! This year’s campaign is around the mission to end plastic pollution. To support this initiative, we are offering our Zero Waste Families e-course for only $10 (which is more than 50% off RRP) between now and midnight Sunday. The course is designed for you to do over a four-week period (or at whatever pace suits you), and aims to provide many solutions for living without waste. Use the coupon code EARTHDAY2018 at checkout, to claim your discount on our e-course.