The limits of recycling

Last updated: 7 September 2021

By Sustainable Resource Use

Originally published as part of the November 2020 Recovered resources market bulletin

Victorians have been enthusiastic recyclers for many years with well over 90% of households presenting kerbside recyclables regularly, and supporting the recycling of many other products through local and state government schemes and retailer takebacks.

Our recycling efforts totalled nearly 11 million tonnes in 2018–19 and contributed to significant greenhouse gas emission reductions and other environmental benefits. There are still plenty of options to drive our recycling higher with increased recovery of products like clothing, durable plastic products and food, with a total of 4.6 million tonnes of waste sent landfill in 2018–19.

Upstream contributors

Despite our commitment to recycling, the big gains environmental gains come further up the waste hierarchy through avoidance and reuse. There are numerous examples where more careful purchasing produces both a more substantial resource saving and an economic benefit. A staggering 30% of clothes in our wardrobes have not been worn in a year, and many will be discarded without their tags even being removed. A simple act such as leaving grass clippings on the lawn is much more efficient than collecting, transporting and reprocessing this organic material offsite.

Similarly, with reuse, a single ceramic or glass drink container can be used hundreds or thousands of times, in contrast to single-use alternatives. Businesses that transport in reusable crates and pallets are achieving a much greater material use reduction outcome than use of single-use alternatives, even if fully recyclable. It is likely that reusable packaging systems still have much untapped potential.

Libraries, car sharing, op-shops also all play an important part in supporting consumer behaviour built on reuse.

Degradation

While it is the case that some materials can be reprocessed in a never-ending cycle, this is not the case for many materials or products. Paper and cardboard fibres degrade with each use, and many highly transformed composite material products are not designed or processable back into the same high value products (e.g. tyres, paint, electronics and clothing). This can often mean the recycling system has an inherently limited contribution with inevitable leakage to waste.

Downcycling

The cascading of products into uses quite different from the first application is often called downcycling. While better than going straight to landfill, sometimes it is merely a delay for this eventual fate. Often the new application is essentially a dead end with no prospect for recovery.

Using crushed glass bottles in road base construction is better than landfilling and is sometimes the only economic option, particularly in regional areas, but no substitute from an environmental impact perspective to recycling the bottles into new packaging. The use of textiles as rags or stuffing is never a long-term alternative to using the fibres back into clothing production.

The definition of recycling becomes blurred with some seeking to reclassify waste into energy as ‘recovery’ or ‘recycling’ despite the material loss and marginal net energy extraction.

Summary

While continuing to expand our recycling collection efforts, we need to pursue market outcomes that retain processed resources for many subsequent uses. We also need to apply a regular assessment, asking could this product or packaging be avoided or shifted to a reusable format.