Date posted: 22/11/2019 5 min read

Can we turn trash into treasure?

If Australians were better at sorting their rubbish, we could recover A$328 million in resources a year, says an EY report.

In Brief

  • Only A$4.2 million worth of recyclable material is currently captured from Australia’s waste each year, according to an EY report.
  • If Australians saw recycling as a resource rather than waste, more than A$328 million in resources could be recovered annually.
  • A coordinated effort by local, state and federal governments is needed for Australia to build a better recycling infrastructure.

By Amity Delaney

Australia is in the middle of a recycling crisis. After China announced in July 2017 its near total ban on importing other countries’ waste for recycling, and other Asian nations followed, Australia’s A$15 billion recycling and waste management sector was thrown into turmoil.

But there could be a silver lining to the waste ban, according to an EY Oceania report released in September 2019, How We Can Find Treasure in Our Trash.

If Australia had a better recycling system in place locally, more than A$328 million worth of recyclable material per year could be re-used in manufacturing and construction, states the report. 

Australians, it says, must see their recycling not as waste, but as a resource.

Australia’s wasted recycling opportunity

Currently only A$4.2 million worth of recyclable material is captured from Australia’s waste each year, the report states.

Much of the potential value is lost because Australia’s councils use a single bin, ‘co-mingled’ approach for kerbside recycling.

Households put all their recycling – glass, mixed plastics and metals – in the one bin. Sorting is done at waste collection stations, but there is a risk that the material can be co-mingled or contaminated with food or paper labels, which greatly reduces its value.

For example, a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk bottle collected as co-mingled plastic waste has a market value of A$110 per tonne. But the market value for clean HDPE is as much as A$500 per tonne, according to the report.

Correctly sorting recycling before it’s collected could help extract maximum value from the material. It would also reduce the amount of waste going to landfill in Australia.

“Through better sorting of recyclables, reducing contamination and developing markets for our recycled waste, Australia could take advantage of this lost opportunity sitting in our kerbside bins,” says Melbourne-based EY Climate Change and Sustainability partner Terence Jeyaretnam.

How to change recycling behaviour

Developing an efficient, large-scale recycling system in Australia would require the coordination of local, state and federal governments, as well as funding for new infrastructure geared towards recycling.

It also needs an attitude shift by Australians. Educating households and businesses about how to recycle correctly will be crucial. That means better information for households, clearer rules on what can be recycled, and incentives, says the report.

Taxes and policy settings could be rolled out to encourage businesses to more clearly label products and packaging to promote recycling.

As for consumers, clearer signage on recycling bins and a rewards system whereby consumers receive a prize for correctly recycling waste materials could further help reduce contamination of waste, says the report.

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Read the EY report How We Can Find Treasure in Our Trash

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