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All Packed Up and Nowhere to Go – How to really stop the world drowning in plastic

The Ancient Egyptians left us their pyramids. What will we leave for future generations?

In a way it’s a good thing that China has stopped taking much of our waste. It could be the wake -up call we need. We may finally notice what a problem it is. Locally it’s exacerbated by the fact that the biggest recycling company in Melbourne to whom we used to ship ours, has gone into liquidation, so now it may all have to go into landfill. So much for all that careful recycling, and this is just the waste that is recycled. Much of it still isn’t. With the exception of Melbourne, where the main recycling depot is, most of Australia still only recycles about 34% as does the USA, a rate at which it has stalled since about 2010 when recycling first became an issue. This seems to be as far as voluntary recycling can take us.  
It’s true that plastic represents only around 40% of the waste stream and plastic packaging even less, but plastic is so ubiquitous and persistent in the environment that it's now turning up in snow, as far afield as the Arctic, in drinking water, in the oceans, in marine mammals, and elsewhere in the food chain, and with as yet undetermined effects on our health.  I also think it’s an absolute disgrace that we send our trash overseas at all.  No one could fail to be appalled by images of dumps in places like Indonesia or the Philippines, where children play amongst the garbage, or by the effect it has on our wildlife

Personal dislikes -plastic bread bags, those awful nets onions come in and you see around the necks of baby turtles, bread tags and those damn stickers on fruit. Someone I spoke to recently about the latter, said they were biodegradable. Is this true? Either way I'll be looking to eliminate them from my life. I will write to the gluten free bread maker and the manufacturer of the vegan yoghurt that comes in plastic containers.

Over sixty countries have now introduced bans and levies on single use plastics. Canada banned throw away plates and cutlery and single use plastic bags in June 2018.  India will be doing so as from the second of October. This will cover not only usage, but manufacturing and import as well. After a six month transition period, fines and penalties will apply.  Furthermore India is also asking companies such as Amazon and Walmart which account for 40% of India’s packaging, to change their practices. The European Union is planning similar measures and some Chinese provinces such as Hainan and Shanghai are also starting to take action, particularly with respect to the catering industry. Some large corporations such as McDonald’s, Evian and ASDA (Sainsbury’s in the UK) are also taking the lead, although mostly it has been left to individual states, provinces, cities and consumers. According to the 2017 UN Report, poster child for the elimination of single use plastic bags appears to be Ireland, which, after introducing a tax on consumers in 2002,  saw consumption of single use plastic bags drop by 90% within a year. Greece achieved an 80% reduction in its first month after its 2007 ban, while Belgium has achieved an 80% reduction over ten years after introducing its tax in 2007 (UN Report p.34 -47).

What is really sad about this, is that when it comes to dealing with plastic some developed nations such as Australia, Canada and the USA, have fallen far behind small countries in Africa or in the Pacific such as Vanuatu, countries which have far more limited resources. Even more ridiculously, one US state, Michigan, has actually legislated AGAINST any kind of ban on plastic packaging to protect its suppliers and manufacturers. Might I suggest they start making cheap cloth bags instead? That would help countries such as Bangladesh whose efforts to ban plastic bags were thwarted by the lack of cheap alternatives. One province in Egypt, Hurghada overcame this by sending out 50,000 free cloth bags, along with a letter explaining the health and environmental reasons for doing so. In some cases too, although bans are in place, enforcement and monitoring of results are lacking.

Here in Australia, the Australian Packaging Covenant, a non - profit consisting of  packaging industry leaders and other stakeholders, reached a voluntary agreement in June this year to make 100% of packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. I hate to be a spoilsport, but isn’t that a tad slow, particularly if our waste continues to grow at 4% a year, along with our population?
Some councils and businesses aren’t waiting that long and have banned the use of single use plastics in the catering industry - the straws, the coffee cups, the stirrers and the single use plastic bags. Hobart hopes to be free of these by 2020. During Plastic Free July the Hobart City Council trialled a Mug Library at Salamanca Market which proved rather poplular and may become a regular thing. If you want to know what a Mug Library is and how to start your own, Click Here.* As well as coffee shops offering discounts to people who bring their own cups, we are seeing a range of more biodegradable or reusable products.

The Keep Cup - Perfect gift for Co -workers, favoured clients, girlfriends, teens, millenials, hipsters, Secret Santas
and even Grandmas and Grandpas
-Photo by Rūta Celma on Unsplash

 The Hill Street Grocer near me which has an extensive salad bar, has recently changed to containers made from sugar cane waste and has always supplied brown paper carrier bags and had dispensers for things like nuts and lentils. It also has beautiful unwrapped bread that smells delicious when you come into the store. Doing the right thing can’t be that unprofitable either. Hill Street has just opened its 9th store and employs loads of people, even a man who helps you park your car. The fruit and veg are excellent too and always fresh, despite being unwrapped.
At the Willie Smith Apple Festival a few weeks ago, they had no throw -away containers at all. At the entrance they sold $5 enamel mugs which you could return at the end to get your deposit back or take them home, in which case they were a not only a cheap and practical souvenir, but with Willie Smith’s logo on them, one that gives Willi Smith’s loads of free advertising wherever they end up. Everything else there was served in paper or cardboard and the cutlery was made of bamboo.  All of it was recycled after use too.

First stop at  the Willie Smith's Apple Festival. Enamel mugs make a useful souvenir and serve as continuous advertising
Of course, health food shops and farmer's markets have been inviting us to bring our own containers for years, but not everyone has the time, and I think far stronger action and signals are needed to move the mass of people.

Improving Domestic Recycling

The second strand of the Agreement wants to increase recycling of plastics to 30% by 2025. At present only 14% of these items are recycled in Australia. What a pity that we didn't implement the recommendations in our National Waste Policy of 2009  instead of leaving it to voluntary agreements, private enterprise, community groups, under resourced local councils and individuals to do the job, rather than showing a bit of national leadership. By contrast, Germany which currently leads the way in the recycling stakes, achieves 66%, followed closely by Wales (64%) and Singapore (61%).  What they and others in the top ten have in common, is that they charge according to the amount which actually goes out in your bin. They also have “other financial and behavioural incentives” (not sure what form these take) and they also fund recycling. I think the weighing is important - there must be a practical way to do it at the individual household level, or the Germans wouldn't be doing it - because it's unfair for conscientious people to always be doing the heavy lifting for those who can't be bothered. I will ask the Germans how they do it. More on this shortly.

[Update 26/9/2019: The Germans it seems, are not so perfect after all. I heard from one friend where the garbage was being weighed when I was there in 2014. However, she says that had to be abandoned as it led to a lot of illegal dumping and people sneaking around at night and putting their rubbish into their neighbour's bins]'
28/5/2023  On the other hand I read that in Sweden - also excellent recyclers, rubbish put out for landfill is in fact still charged by weight, but the scales and some kind of meter are inside the home.

 In our case, we also need much clearer guidelines and more uniformity around what can and can’t be recycled.  At present there are at least 1500 types of soft plastics (based on the type of sorting a machine in Geelong can do). Regulations vary considerably between states and municipalities and in what they can handle. Perhaps the vast number of different types could be reduced and thus make it easier to label, sort and reprocess.

 Container Deposits and Landfill Levies
Simply creating a national and hence uniform Container Deposit Scheme could also make a significant difference here as has been demonstrated in South Australia, which has had one since the 1980’s. Simply by separating glass at source in this manner, it achieves a much higher financial return and glass shards no longer contaminate other recyclables. While most states have now adopted such measures, they vary from state to state and Tasmania and Victoria have yet to act.

Recycling the proceeds of recycling
Further, in all states except South Australia, money earned by recycling is simply swallowed up in consolidated revenue, whereas South Australia reinvests in capacity, education and infrastructure with its returns. Most councils have now introduced levies to deter people from using landfill, but there is no consistency which has lead to unintended consequences such as moving waste from one state to another, and also to illegal dumping. 

 Designing better products in the first place

 So much for the end- of –pipe issues. The third action agreed upon concerns reuse of recycled materials. For this we need whole -of -life cycle design and investment in research. Granted there is some being done at the University of New South Wales, but it needs to be on a large scale as has been done with respect to white goods in Japan. By 2012 Japan had already achieved 85% recovery with regard to domestic appliances and was aiming for 98%. Again it did not rely on the goodwill of other parties. Japan’s Home Appliance Recycling Law went into operation in 2001. It just takes a bit more political will and leadership. Germany made manufacturer’s responsible for their waste back in 1991 and they quickly got together to design better products for a circular economy. Now almost nothing is reprocessed outside the country.

How much nicer are these berry boxes? Image lifted from Jacquelynne Steves

Using recovered material

So now we have achieved higher recycling rates, the next step is to find outlets for the recovered products. In the USA, which has among the lowest recycling rates in the developed world, the EPA has at least come up with a preferred procurement policy whereby  recycled materials are not only tracked but favoured in some way, whether by a virgin material tax or other means. It maintains a directory of recyclers and suppliers of recycled materials, which should be easy to replicate. Guaranteed outlets for recycled or reprocessed materials would encourage investment by the private sector. Alternatively, the provision of infrastructure or grants to enable local councils and communities to do so, would yield long term economic, social and environmental benefits. It would be better still however, if we could come up with small scale industries, which don't involve plastics at all.

Hint: Personally I wouldn't mind a traditional Indian Tiffin tin. It would be a long lasting solution for lunches or takeaways

Fixated as they are on the economy and job creation, our leaders should be aware that recycling already employs some 20,000 people full time and 35,000 part time and generates 9.5 jobs for every 10,000 tonnes of waste. Given that other countries which currently accept waste may soon go the way of China – Indonesia for example, will no longer accept contaminated paper and e-waste, Thailand plans to stop importing foreign waste by 2021, it's high time that we came up with in -house solutions which do not depend on the vagaries of international markets. (It also creates less greenhouse gases than shipping it from place to place).

At present we have fallen far behind, but we should think of it as a sunrise industry, an opportunity where with some decisive leadership, investment, research, infrastructure and market development, we could not only solve our own problems but become leaders rather than dragging our feet.

Lastly, I would like to offer a couple of simple suggestions:
  1. Instead of those weird Safety Awards and the like, could we please give each worker a Keep Cup
  2. With respect to using recycled content, could we make strong portable emergency shelters for all those people unhomed by cyclones, earthquakes, floods and bushfires which are occurring with alarming force and frequency. And let's not forget the homeless either.   

* Kate Nelson The Plastic Free Mermaid, knows a lot about ocean plastics and has plenty of ideas about how to get them out of our lives. What's more, in her Plastic -free  July post, she mentions that it is NOT necessary to buy a whole lot of new stuff so you can go plastic -free as she has been for the last ten years :)