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As population grows so must our commitment to recycling

18 March 2018

Man wheeling recycling bin

By Stan Krpan, CEO Sustainability Victoria

Today, on the first Global Recycling Day, the old saying Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is as valid as it was when it was coined decades ago.

It’s becoming increasingly important as Australia’s population is expected to jump from 23.4 million at the 2016 census to 38 million by 2050. Over the same period, Victoria’s population is expected to rise from 5.96 million to more than 10 million.

Worldwide, there is an inevitable tension between a growing population and a finite resource supply.

If you include climate change, which itself is fuelled by added demand on resources, we could find ourselves locked in a downward spiral with unpredictable and wide-ranging consequences.

Recent changes to China’s import policy - which means unsorted plastic, paper and cardboard waste are no longer welcome - is part of a global wake-up call that we need to manage more of our waste ourselves. The answer of course is still to reduce first, then reuse and recycle.

While waste exports are a relatively small part of our overall waste volumes, some growing waste streams are causing environmental problems across the world.

Developed countries are scrambling to find new markets for unsorted materials, or ways to put better sorting capability in place, but we must think more about 'closing the loop' locally and dealing with our own mess.

In Australia, although many in the recycling sector are legitimately concerned by the change and how council recycling collections might be affected, in other ways it might be the wake-up call we needed.

In 2015-16 (the latest figures) Victoria generated 12.67 million tonnes of waste of which 8.49 million tonnes - 67 per cent of all waste produced - was recovered.

Of the recovered materials, 86 per cent remained in Victoria and only about 14 per cent was exported for processing. About half of this went to China.

However, with better processing capability, innovation, and increased procurement and specification of local recycled feedstocks, much of what we now export can be value-added locally so it could be used by manufacturers here or overseas.

Victoria’s long-established recycling and re-processing sector already provides the raw material for paper, many types of plastic products and in the case of metal and glass, it’s being crushed, melted down and re-manufactured into new products. Concrete and bricks have long been crushed and used as aggregate in construction.

The latest designed products show us that better looking, more durable and highly-engineered products can be made from recycled or recovered content.

This is the way of the future and it is time we met the growing consumer interest in such products and materials.

New research, funded by Sustainability Victoria, has demonstrated that rubber and glass can be used in road building, while lightweight concrete containing glass has applications in construction, footpaths and driveways. Soft plastics are now used by local governments and utilities to produce drain covers, street furniture, even railway sleepers.

Old shopping bags and other plastic, with glass, are being formed into strong, weather-resistant beams which have a range of construction and other uses while better-looking decking materials is perfect for the Aussie sun.

We recycle a lot of our waste, but with a growing population we also have to increase our recycling output by more than 4.5 million tonnes a year for the next 30 years just to retain our current recycling rate.

Fortunately, we’re at a point where big investment is starting to flow from superannuation funds and corporations, philanthropy and individuals who are looking to invest in suitable sustainability projects.

Board rooms and investors are now looking for returns from projects that demonstrate their sustainability credentials, reduce risks in their supply chains and are meeting a growing demand for responsible companies and products.

For its part, Sustainability Victoria directly invested more than $15 million in the resource recovery and waste sectors between 2013 and 2017 and leveraged a further $24 million in investment.

Over the next four years new Victorian Government infrastructure and waste-to-energy programs delivered by Sustainability Victoria will invest nearly $17 million which should leverage more than $52 million in investment.

We’re in the midst of a growing corporate focus and rising community sentiment to develop a circular economy, which shifts our thinking from digging stuff up and making products to working out what to do with something at the end of its life.

Increasingly, we’re moving towards practices that are 'restorative' and which support materials and components being reused or recycled many times over.

It’s about developing processes that use smart design to incorporate recycled content, design for reuse or recycling, and designing-out obsolescence to improve material and system efficiency before and during production, and at the end of a product’s life.

Despite the current market volatility, with smart, responsible investment and renewables now mainstream, the ongoing maturation of our resource recovery sector and emerging markets for our waste, we can look forward with confidence.

The recently-announced $13 million assistance package will help councils and the recycling sector adjust to the changing world market, but businesses of all types can also access a variety of grants available through Sustainability Victoria that can help them reduce the waste they produce.