Dyani Lewis. The Guardian. Monday 22 May 2017
There’s no escaping plastic in modern life. In Australia, more than 1.5m tonnes of the crude oil derivative is consumed each year, not including plastics imported in finished products or their packaging. And most of this ends up on a centuries-long path to degradation in landfill or the world’s waterways and oceans. One recent sobering analysis has estimated that by 2050, the weight of plastics in the oceans will match that of fish.
Reducing consumption by avoiding the use of disposable plastic shopping bags, for instance, and reusing plastic containers are important waste-reduction measures. But what role does recycling play?
Despite our profligate consumption of plastic goods, only 300,000 tonnes of the stuff is collected for recycling each year in Australia, according to the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association of Australia. Around half of this is sent overseas for processing and a further 20% of the plastics reprocessed into pellets to be made into new products is also sent overseas.
Not all plastics can be readily recycled. Hard thermoset plastics commonly used in electronics are currently unrecyclable, though researchers are finding ways to change that. Even for those plastics that are recyclable, the process often begins with mechanical or hand sorting into separate plastic polymer classes – represented by that number emblazoned within the recycling logo on the bottle or container – before reprocessing can begin.
But technical challenges are not the main bottleneck for plastics recycling, according to Mark Jacobsen, director of marketing at recycling firm Replas. “Recycling in Australia is dead in the water,” he says, unless people are willing to buy products made of their own waste.
Replas has been in the recycling business for close to three decades, turning soft plastics such as milk cartons and squeezable shampoo bottles into sturdy plastic play equipment, termite-proof boardwalk decking and bollards that outlast their timber alternatives by decades. Yet Replas only processes about a third of what it has the capacity to and frequently turns down offers of more scrap plastic.
“The whole economy has got to change,” says Jacobsen. Currently, he says, people still view plastic primarily as a waste product. The company now uses a partnership model, only accepting plastic waste from organisations willing to buy back the recycled products they make. Large supermarket chains, such as Coles and Woolworths, are some of those leading by example, says Jacobsen. Some city councils are also shedding historic buying practices, which often dictate purchasing decisions, by incorporating recycled plastic into their operations.
A few years ago, Replas partnered with RED Group, the Melbourne-based company behind the REDcycle program that collects soft plastic packaging for recycling. Elizabeth Kasell, director of RED Group, abandoned a career in the fashion industry to start the company in 2010 because she saw an unmet need every time she threw a plastic bread bag in the bin.
This type of soft plastic packaging is normally a problem for the mechanical sorting machines used in plastic recycling operations. The REDcycle program eliminates this hassle by collecting and processing the packaging separately, before sending it on to Replas for incorporation into its products.
What started out as a pilot program to collect plastic bags at a few Melbourne primary schools has grown into a network of more than 600 collection stations, mostly at supermarkets, around the country. Like Replas, RED Group is happy to accept plastic packaging, but only if a company is willing to be part of the solution, buying back what it contributes in waste.
Another Australian company, Range International, is avoiding the need for sorting altogether and is tapping into a massive market. The company, which listed on the ASX in 2016 and whose backers include Prince Albert II of Monaco, recovers unsorted mixed plastic waste from Indonesian landfill. A process involving heat and intense pressure turns the waste into a malleable plastic “cookie dough” that is pressed into moulds in the shape of shipping pallets.
“What we have in our product is actually two environmental benefits contained in one,” says the Range International chief executive, Lars Amstrup, referring to the diversion of landfill waste and the replacement the industry-standard timber pallets with plastic ones.
Range International’s choice of market for its recycled plastic was deliberate – over 5bn new shipping pallets are made annually. Almost all of these – 93% – are made from timber and consume 40% of the world’s timber supply, according to the company’s website. Many of these require heat treatment and fumigation before being shipped on a single journey to their destination country and discarded.
For every 25 of Range’s plastic RePal pallets bought, the felling of one tree is prevented, according to the company’s figures, and an independent analysis of the magnitude of environmental benefits provided by the scheme is currently in preparation.
Expensive virgin plastic pallets are available, but usually cost far more than their timber alternatives. Range’s philosophy, says Amstrup, is to sell their pallets for the same price as a timber pallet, thereby making the switch to recycled pallets easy for companies seeking a greener approach to international commerce. Range also ships pallets back for reuse by the same customer, resale or reprocessing into new pallets.
Only by reintroducing recycled plastics into the economy in this way will plastics actually become part of a circular, rather than linear, economy.