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Building a circular economy for plastic

Imagine buying a drink from a shop, putting the empty bottle into your recycling bin, and the next time you buy a drink, the bottle you purchase is manufactured with plastic recycled from the first.

It is possible in a circular economy, where waste is minimised and resources are re-used and recycled.

Closing the waste ‘loop’ for plastic starts with building the four pillars of a circular economy by:

  • reducing contamination in recycling bins and increasing recoveries during waste collections;
  • improving sorting technology at material recovery facilities (MRFs);
  • increasing domestic markets for recovered plastic; and
  • stimulating local demand for recycled products.
     

This process needs commitment and action from industry, governments and consumers to turn it into a reality.

Reducing contamination and improving recoveries

Contamination is a major issue for recycling as it reduces the commodity value of material, raises health, safety and operational issues at processing facilities, and creates additional costs which affects customers, operators and ratepayers.

In Australia, consumer plastic is collected from household kerbside recycling bins, commercial customers and container deposit schemes, where plastic is ‘source separated’ from other materials, which improves the quality of the material for recycling.

Kerbside recycling bins can have high levels of contamination, sometimes as much as 20% of the total, as households mix textiles, e-waste, batteries, soft plastic, pots and pans, and organic material with plastic and other recyclable materials.

To improve the quality of recyclables at the point of disposal, rules and bin lid colours need to be standardised to assist with education across different jurisdictions, said Cleanaway Head of Corporate Affairs, Mark Biddulph.

The Australian Government has responded, announcing in March it would work with state and territory governments to harmonise kerbside recycling.

Launching the first National Plastics Plan, Environmental Minister Sussan Ley said the Government would end the inconsistencies, including the colour of bin lids and what is accepted for recycling.

Biddulph said recycling behaviour could be improved through education with research showing Australians want a more sustainable future, but they are confused about fundamental recycling practices.

Cleanaway’s Recycling Behaviours Report released in April found only 25% of Australians are separating waste correctly and up to 35% of recyclable materials are needlessly going to landfill due to simple sorting errors.

The report was released to launch Cleanaway’s new online education resource, Greenius, which makes recycling simpler for residents, councils, schools and businesses.

It is estimated that more than 50% of all recycling contamination would be resolved if everybody removed soft plastic, food, liquid and textiles from their yellow bins.

“It’s the small behavioural changes that will make all the difference,” Biddulph said.

To view a larger image, click here.

Improving technology at MRFs

The sorting capability of MRFs varies around the country, depending on when the facility was built and local requirements. To capitalise on the clean plastic recycling becoming available through container deposit schemes, and improved kerbside returns, technology to separate plastic into individual polymers will be critical.

HDPE, PP, PET and LDPE are the four main polymers, representing 54% of Australian plastic consumption. Plastic sorting technology is different from standard MRF technology in how it recognises individual polymers and separates items that contain non-plastic material or other contaminants.

Cleanaway’s Plastic Recovery Facility in Laverton, Melbourne, is one example of where plastic is already being sorted into individual polymers for onshore recycling and export.

Increasing domestic markets for recovered plastic

The gradual introduction of export bans for plastic through the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020 is heightening the importance of finding markets for recovered plastic in Australia.

From 1 July 2021, only plastic that has been sorted into single resin or polymer types or processed into engineered fuel, can be exported.

From 1 July 2022, the ban will be extended so that only plastic that has been reprocessed for further use, such as flakes or pellets, can be exported for recycling offshore.

“Our essential waste and resource recovery sector has long supported the waste export bans and the industry has and continues to work closely with the federal government to ensure a smooth transition that will meet our environmental and economic objectives,” Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia CEO Gayle Sloan said.

One way to build domestic markets for recovered plastic is to invest in pelletising technology which creates the feedstock for manufacturing products from recycled products, like plastic drink bottles.

The $45 million facility being built in Albury by Circular Plastics Australia (CPA), a joint venture of Cleanaway, Pact Group and Asahi Beverages, will transform about one billion PET bottles each year into pellets.

When it opens later in 2021, this plant will make 30,000 new bottles for Asahi’s bottle manufacturing plant in Albury and Pact’s packaging plants in Sydney and Melbourne.

A plastic pelletising facility is also planned by Cleanaway and Pact Group at Laverton North, where up to 20,000 tonnes per annum of HDPE, PP and LDPE from kerbside collections and the Victorian CDS will be processed into food and non-food-grade recycled resins for plastic re-processing.

The Western Australian and Commonwealth Governments have also announced a grant for a new plastic recycling plant planned by Cleanaway and Pact Group in Western Australia to process locally collected HDPE, PET, LDPE and PP into resin and polymer flake for use in packaging.

Stimulating local demand for recycled products

Knowing that consumers will make sustainable purchasing choices will encourage more investment in sorting and processing technology.

A high percentage of respondents to the Recycling Behaviours Report were actively making sustainable choices as consumers and 41% sought out these products most or every time.

“We’re seeing strong investment from both the waste management sector and fast moving consumer goods and packaging sector to increase recycled content on-shore but, without strong consumer demand, it will be hard to justify more ambitious projects,” Biddulph said.

“If we all play our part, we will have a real chance of building a sustainable circular economy for plastic onshore here in Australia.”

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/monticellllo

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