In South Korea, another champion of the circular economy, the garbage inspector may petrify through your trash and you’re fine If you put the wrong thing in the wrong bag.
In Kamikatsu, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, villagers sort their household waste 45 categories (Bottle caps are sorted by color, bottles with soy sauce or cooking oil are separated from PET drinking bottles, etc.).
Nowhere in Australia has recycled to anything like those lengths, but last month Victoria announced that all residents would get a fourth purple wheelie box. for recyclable glass, which led to the creation of the first unified state-wide program. Elsewhere, local governments have established a patchwork system where the rules change at council boundaries.
Is this a meaningful step towards a more efficient recycling system, or will it be another well-intentioned initiative that does little to reverse Australia’s poor history of waste management?
Australia has a series of recycling targets for 2025: 100% of packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70% of plastic packaging is recycled or composted; 50% of the average recycled content included in the package; and phasing out problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging.
But there is no agreed upon way to get there.
One part of the recycling dilemma is that it works best when items are separated early in the process, but this means that container collection arrangements become more complex, and families are expected to do more sorting work.
Will technology one day allow families to put everything in one bag, and let robots sort it?
Susan Tomborough, Executive Director of the Australian Council of Recyclingskeptical.
“It would be nice. I think it’s unlikely, at least in the near future, that you’ll have an attachment that sorts everything out,” she says.
“Everyone has a role to play.”
Until then, we have a range of curbside recycling options, and the collected waste flows through facilities that have different methods of filtration, heating, sifting and sorting in different streams. Some facilities can detect different types of metal, glass, plastic, and paper, and guide materials in different paths.
But still it all starts at home.
There is no universal gold standard, but the four-box systems dominate some of the most successful recycling nations. A survey of the most important countries shows that the planned Victorian system is popular. Glass is separated, as is food or garden organic matter. Then there are the other recyclables (paper, cardboard and some plastics), and then a basket for everything else.
In some countries, this system is enhanced by pricing schemes. People pay by the kilogram for everything they receive.
Trevor Thornton says that necessity has been the mother of invention for many countries that excel at recycling.
Deakin University’s hazardous materials management lecturer says some of the best workers – like Germany and South Korea – didn’t have landfill space, “so they had to do something about it.”
Australia, with its sweeping plains, has delayed counting its waste.
Victoria’s environment minister, Lilly D’Ambrosio, said she knew something was “terribly wrong” when the Kerbside waste collection suffered a “major collapse”.
In 2018, China stopped accepting 99% of the world’s recycling. Australia’s dependence on shipping its waste overseas has been revealed to be untenable and councils have had to start hoarding as they work on a new solution.
“A lot of reforms were needed to get a system in Victoria that people could rely on,” says D’Ambrosio. “People in one part of the state had a whole set of rules, but you just have to go to another municipality to find different ones.”
D’Ambrosio says the lack of consistency made it difficult to change people’s behaviors around recycling and “led to a lot of confusion.”
Fast forward to October 2022, when the government started Subtract order First announced in 2020.
D’Ambrosio says it’s a best practice in Australia to have all four chests, especially to separate the glass.
“I heard loud and clear from the industry that glass that was put in the same trash as paper, cardboard, and plastic has contaminated everything that goes into that bin,” she says. Fragments not only render other materials useless, but interfere with machinery.
Tomborough agrees that the family business is crucial.
“Separation at the source is a really important part of great recycling outcomes,” she says.
“The cleanest stream you’ll get from recycling materials is when they are separated from the source — and the source is the homeowners.”
Starting a virtuous cycle
Tomborough says that a good circular economy starts with product design. It is better to have “single layers”, for example, containers with only one type of plastic. Once you have more products that are easy to recycle, it’s up to consumers to “choose wisely and dispose of them wisely.”
Successful countries invest in education, better recycling pathways, and innovative ways to turn waste into useful products. In many cases they convert waste into energy, a New idea in Australia.
Thornton says more focus is needed on reducing waste in the first place, as well as recycling efficiently. There is a risk, he adds, that the availability of recycling makes people complacent about over-consumption with the thought that the waste will be reused.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle the mantra goes. But the simplicity contrasts with the complex economy behind the circular economy. Companies that collect curbside waste and companies that turn it into something new and useful have to be economically viable. This means that they need a critical mass of products to be recycled, and a market to buy anything in which these materials are recycled.
D’Ambrosio says local councils clearly want to find a lower price for both collection and recycling, “regardless of the outcome.”
But in the end, the cheap prices led to the collapse of our system. We never want to go back there.”
If the outflows from the homes are cleaner, it is more attractive for companies to set up facilities to receive them.
“It’s about everyone doing their homework along the entire chain,” says D’Ambrosio. “Do we really need to load our fridges with all that food knowing we’re going to throw it out? Be careful about your own consumption. Match it up to your needs and you’ll get less stuff.”
Innovations across Australia are making a difference on the sidelines.
In Adelaide, some public bins now come with outside shelves for bottles and cans that attract 10c container sediment so “community collectors” don’t have to dig through the trash for it.
There are local programs like CorbyFamilies can collect targeted items such as soft plastic and coffee tablets in a special bag, scan a QR code before putting them in their recycling bins, and keep track of them as they are separated from other waste.
Work continues to withstand problems, such as Recycle solar panels.
As Australia strives for a truly circular economy and the ideal of zero waste, recycling is likely to become more complex. More wheelie boxes, more innovation, more choices. Tomborough says robots and artificial intelligence will make recycling smarter, but that families will have to continue to do their part by sorting their waste.
“One ben to judge them all? Probably not.”