Canberra's Recycling Story


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Waste is a local problem in a global context - the Canberra recycling story.

Waste is something we create when we don’t use resources to their full potential.

How we avoid, re-use, recycle and dispose of waste is complex and multi-faceted, the waste hierarchy sets out the ACT Government’s preferred options for managing waste. As the third most preferred option, after reducing (first priority) and reusing (second priority) waste, recycling is fundamental to effective waste management. It is vital to the development of a circular economy, where waste is viewed as a valuable resource to be used again, helping to avoid the use of natural resources and keeping materials out of landfill.

Reduce waste generation; reuse goods and materials, recycle material into new products, recover energy, landfill.

The waste hierarchy

In Australia, the bulk of kerbside recycling services are limited to household containers, packaging, paper and cardboard. This material is processed through a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where it is brought in by truck and sorted into different streams of materials such as paper, cardboard, glass, steel, aluminium, and some types of plastics. From here, the materials are baled up and sold on the market to manufacturing industries both in Australia and overseas.

Most recycling is sold into domestic markets, with overseas markets available for some plastic, paper and cardboard products.

There is strong demand for some types of recycled plastic, such as HDPE (i.e. milk bottles) and PET (i.e. soft drink bottles), while many other types of plastic cannot be easily recycled and are often sold as a low-value mixed plastic product.

Mixed plastics make-up a small percentage of recycling and have traditionally been sold to overseas markets, but contamination found in the bales is creating several challenges. In January 2018, China implemented their National Sword Policy, which has banned the import of recycled materials with contamination rates over 0.5%. Similar policies have now been introduced or are being considered in countries such as Malaysia, India and Indonesia.

These restrictions have impacted the recycling industry across the world, including Australia, and markets for low quality mixed plastics and mixed paper have become harder to find. This contributed to the collapse of a prominent Victorian recycler in August 2019, forcing a number of Victorian local governments to send yellow bin recycling to landfill for several months.

Contamination in recycling

MRF received 45% paper/cardboard, 33% glass, 8% plastic, 1% aluminium, 1% steel and 12% contamination.

The recycling industry needs us to reduce contamination by making our recycling cleaner.

Contamination can take a number of forms, such as:

Recycling is collected from ACT and surrounds, truckers deliver around 250 tonnes a day to MRF for sorting, staff and machinery sort and separate glass plastics metals paper & cardboard, glass is crushed to sand. Baled material is sold on for processing. New products are manufactured and produced.

Recycling in the ACT - how it works

Recycling collected from household yellow bins in the ACT is sent to the MRF located in Hume. The facility also processes commercial recycling and recycling from some of the surrounding local council areas in NSW.

Around 90-95% of materials processed through the ACT MRF (paper, cardboard, glass, steel and aluminium) are sold to domestic markets.

Paper and cardboard, which makes up around 45-55% of material (by weight) is sent to a pulp and paper mill at Tumut in NSW to produce Kraft paper.

Glass, which makes up around 30-35% of material processed is made into sand and sold locally and interstate.

HDPE, PET, mixed plastics, aluminium and steel are separated and sold to a variety of end users based on market demand.

Plastics and what the number in the triangle really means?

The versatility and variety of plastics mean they have become widespread as packaging products. Similar to challenges faced across Australia and the globe, it has become difficult to find markets for some plastics either due to their low economic value, low grade, heavy contamination or the lack of reprocessing options for particular plastic types.

Being relatively lightweight and cheap to manufacture, plastics can be made into any shape, colour or form required. There are many different types of plastic with most being made from oil or gas with small amounts of other products such as colour pigments, carbon black (for UV stabilisation) and fire retardants.

These are not recycling symbols

A Plastics Identification Code may be stamped on a product to indicate what type of plastic (sometimes called resin) the product is made from. This code does not signify that something is recyclable. The ACT MRF only accepts certain plastic containers and packaging products that have been designed to be recycled. Plastic toys, furniture and other goods are not accepted in the yellow bin regardless of the plastic resin types they are made from.

Plastics recycled in the ACT

The ACT MRF sorts and bales the following categories of plastic according to market demand:

Clear PET (plastic code 1) – clear Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is the clear plastic used in products like water bottles, soft drink bottles, fruit juice bottles, fruit punnets and clear plastic meat trays. This is generally sold on the domestic market.

Natural HDPE (plastic code 2) – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is the cloudy plastic commonly used for milk bottles. Like PET, it is generally sold to domestic recyclers.

Coloured HDPE (plastic code 2) –High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) commonly used for bathroom and laundry bottles. It is generally sold to domestic recyclers.

UPVC (plastic code 3) and PP (plastic code 5) – Unplasticised Polyvinyl Chloride (UPVC) includes clear cordial and juice bottles, and Polypropylene (PP) includes rigid packaging like margarine and ice cream containers. These categories are baled together and sold as a mixed plastic.

These mixed plastic bales are the ones most affected by the changes to import bans of international recyclers due to its low value and demand. They represent approximately 2% of the recycling processed each week at the ACT MRF.

Plastics not recycled in the ACT

The following plastic codes are not recyclable through the ACT MRF and are considered contaminants:

Soft plastic (plastic code 4) – includes items such as plastic bags, garbage bags and plastic wraps. Although not recyclable through the MRF, if they are completely separated out from other plastic types, they may be recycled through specialist soft plastics recycling facilities.

Polystyrene and expanded polystyrene (plastic code 6) – includes items such as coffee cup lids and plastic cups.

Other’ plastics (plastic code 7) – includes acrylics, bioplastics, nylon and materials of unknown origin.

Container Deposit Schemes (CDS), or container refund schemes, have been established in most Australian states and territories to source separate containers at the start of the recycling process. Compared to co-mingled recycling, the schemes provide cleaner streams of recycling, with minimal contamination that are easier to sell on the market.

How can we get better at waste management?

Whole of Government approaches to waste management

National Waste Policy and the Waste Export Ban

Australian Governments have developed and agreed to the National Waste policy and subsequent action plan, outlining 76 targets to reduce waste, especially plastics, decrease the amount of waste going to landfill and maximise the capability of our waste management and recycling sector to collect, recycle, re-use, convert and recover waste. This will draw on the best science, research and commercial experience, including that of agencies like the CSIRO and the work of Cooperative Research Centres.

In line with the National Waste Policy and in recognition of challenges to the industry, the Council of Australian Governments (including the ACT) agreed to implement a waste export ban on waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres that have not been processed into a value-added material.

Bans on these materials are likely to be implemented by the following dates.

Governments across Australia are working through the implications of the ban, and the processes that will need to in place to meet them.

APCO packaging target

In April 2018 Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers committed to reducing the amount of waste generated and making it easier for products to be recycled. Through a joint statement, ministers endorsed a target of 100% of Australian packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier, and committed to working with the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), representing over 900 companies, to deliver this target.  APCO have announced the following National Packaging Targets to be achieved by 2025:

What is the ACT doing?

The ACT’s current Waste Management Strategy has the goal of leading innovation to drive towards 90% resource recovery, reducing waste generation, ensuring a cleaner environment and a carbon neutral waste sector. The ACT Waste Feasibility Study identifies activities and programs to reach those targets.

The ACT Government also works closely with members of the Canberra Region Joint Organisation (CRJO) on the implementation of the CRJO Regional Waste Strategy 2018-2023, recognising that waste management and resource recovery is a cross-border issue.

There are a range of activities currently underway to improve recycling outcomes for the ACT:

Case Study: The Road to Success is paved with Recycled Plastic

In March 2019, the ACT laid around 1,000 tonnes of asphalt containing recycled products into an ACT roads trial. Each tonne of the product contains approximately 800 plastic bags, 300 glass bottles, 18 used printer toner cartridges and 250 kilograms of reclaimed asphalt. The ACT Government is now looking to use this material in other road works, and is also examining the use of recycled plastics in products such as wheel stops, bollards and park benches.

The cost of using this product is on par with traditional asphalt. The impact on local government budgets of not using recycled product could also contribute to higher waste disposal costs.

Projects like these are the cornerstone of building circular economies in Australia, replacing virgin materials with recycled products.

There’s no single solution to improve waste management and we all have a role to play:

We will continue to work with all levels of government, with industry, business and the local community to improve resource recovery, encourage avoidance, reuse and recycling as part of our efforts to minimise waste to landfill and work towards making better use of our valuable resources.

For enquiries please contact ACT NoWaste.