Demand will drive soft plastics recycling
One of the key unresolved issues in the war on waste is the recycling of household flexible (soft) plastics.
Soft plastics are currently not accepted at kerbside recycling, although a trial has been announced (Sustainability Matters, April/May 2020) and they can be deposited in bins at supermarkets through the REDcycle program. But once the flexible plastic has been collected, it cannot practically be made into more flexible plastic packaging material. It can only be turned into other things, but there is insufficient demand from end users for these products.
In 2018, all levels of Australian government came together to launch the 2025 National Packaging Targets. Its aim: “The whole packaging value chain collaborates to keep packaging materials out of landfill to maximise the circular value of the materials, energy and labour in the local economy.”
Under the scheme, federal, state and territory governments agreed that 100% of packaging material must be either re-usable, recyclable or compostable, and that 70% of plastic packaging must be recycled or composted.
The National Packaging Targets are being driven by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation. APCO has been working with all parts of the packaging chain to establish both what currently happens and what is possible. One of its first projects was a survey to gather data on the scale and extent of the problem. It then set targets for recycled content in packaging, and in April 2020 APCO released ‘Our Packaging Future’, which sets out the steps to achieve the 2025 targets.
APCO wants to drive the use of recycled content by increasing the capacity for reprocessing locally and by increasing the number of premises recycling.
Pip Kiernan, Chairman of Clean Up Australia, says that to drive plastic recycling, there needs to be a market for the end product. “We need to build an inclusive, circular economy and work together to create a market for the material we recycle. It’s very simple — if no one is buying products made with recycled plastics then the plastics go to landfill,” she said.
One alternative is to re-use the plastic to make the same product again. But at present PET packaging (eg, soft drink bottles) contains an average of 12% recycled content, HDPE (such as milk bottles) contains only around 2% recycled content, and there is an insignificant amount in flexible plastics.
APCO’s 2025 targets are 30% for PET, 20% for HDPE and 10% for flexible plastics.
There is a significant difference between the targets for recycled content for plastic packaging (10–30%) and the National Packaging Target for plastic that needs to be recycled (70%). This difference represents the amount of recycled plastic packaging that needs to be turned into something useful that is not packaging.
This is where we need industry and governments involved. Mixed plastics (including flexible plastics) can be recycled into a variety of products. As an example, the flexible plastics collected through the REDcycle program are used by Replas in Ballarat to make bollards, signage, wheel stops and furniture. Close the Loop in Melbourne uses the plastics as a component in an asphalt additive called Tonerplas.
As an individual you can buy shampoo or washing detergent in a bottle made of recycled plastic, but most people don’t need the large-format outdoor products that are currently made from flexible plastics. If we are to meet our target of recycling 70% of plastic packaging, there needs to be demand for end products that are not packaging. This is where industry and government need to incorporate recycled content targets into their formal procurement policies.
Mark Jacobsen from Replas sees waste as a valuable resource and a way to make the world more sustainable. “Our driving focus is education and awareness around what is possible with soft plastic packaging. We work closely with schools, architects and councils to arm them with the knowledge to make informed decisions about the selection and procurement of recycled plastic products. Everyone touches plastic and we must be more accountable and responsible if we are to drive demand for recycled plastic products.
“When you purchase products made from recycled plastic, you become the true recycler,” he said.
The bottom line is that soft plastics recycling (or any recycling for that matter) only works if there is a market for the product.
Elizabeth Kasell from REDcycle summarises it well: “The success of any economy relies on the balance of supply and demand. The recovery and flow of materials through a successful recycling model is no different. As a society transitioning to a circular and shared approach to our waste, it is vital that the demand for products containing recycled materials is raised to meet the supply. This can only be achieved if government and industry lead by example and drive the demand through the procurement of these products.”
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