Preventing a global recycling Armageddon

Barry Cosier, director of sustainability for the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) tells Food & Beverage Industry News why there needs to be a rethink on how Australia recycles.

It would be fair to say that most Australians could not imagine life without household recycling. Kerbside newspaper collections commenced across the country in the 1970s and 1980s, followed shortly by the yellow-lidded bin collection of fully commingled materials.
Recycling has become as entrenched in the household routine as emptying the mailbox or locking the front door. Until now, perhaps.

Thanks to the introduction of the China Sword policy in 2017, the resource recovery and recycling sector is under immense pressure to sustain recovery rates; households are becoming reticent and unsure about the efficacy of their recycling efforts; and many are looking squarely at government and industry for a new solution. So, what does this mean for food and grocery manufacturers?

The good old days
Some people are old enough to remember when glass bottles were returned to the corner store for recycling and used milk bottles were collected by a pre-dawn milkman. While the recovery rates for these items were high, all other packaging material ended up in landfill. The introduction of commingled collection and recycling dramatically increased the recovery rates for paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminium, glass and steel, while concurrently reducing needless waste.

Over time, advancements in packaging technology also reduced food waste that was previously disposed of in landfill. Barrier protection materials increased the shelf life of products in store and the home, providing almost year-round availability of seasonal produce for consumers.

We now take for granted the many benefits that packaging affords: food safety, food freshness, tamper-evident packaging for medicines, hygiene barriers for personal products, portion control to reduce waste and obesity, and limited breakages in manufacturing, transport, retail and the home. The list goes on.

Like many industries over the last 30 years, China’s appetite for raw materials gave us a ready-made destination for discarded packaging. After sorting materials locally, Chinese recyclers would reprocess packaging into new products and new packaging materials, which were then marketed world-wide. Demand (and therefore prices paid for packaging materials) peaked to a point that some Australian recyclers could afford to sort recycled materials free of charge and pay local councils for the material collected at the kerbside.
It was almost too good to be true. And it was good until China implemented the China Sword Policy, effectively banning the receipt of mixed paper and plastics through setting very low acceptable contamination levels.

Recycling Armageddon
The introduction of the China Sword policy has left local kerbside recyclers with recycled materials that no longer meet the quality specifications required by global processors. The heydays of exporting to China have ended – with no plan B. Simply put, Australia does not have sufficient recycling processing infrastructure in place to recycle packaging collected at the kerbside.

This complex global problem cannot be solved by simple solutions that some may suggest.
All stakeholders along the supply chain – from packaging manufacturers, product manufacturers and retailers to the consumer, local councils, collectors, and recycling processors – have a role to play in finding environmentally and economically sustainable solutions.

Certainly, leadership and support from local, state and federal governments is essential. However, more importantly, industry must collaborate with all stakeholders and provide government with industry-led solutions if we are to gain their confidence and support in developing new local infrastructure that will meet the needs of both manufacturers and material processors. Put simply, all stakeholders must work together to safeguard the general public’s confidence in recycling.

Next steps: What can manufacturers do?
In the coming years, a circular economy must be developed. What is a circular economy? Simply put, it’s when waste materials, such as packaging avoids being landfilled and is repurposed or recycled to reduce the use of virgin materials. Examples include, converting plastic milk bottles into new milk bottles or into park benches, or using glass to make new bottles or low-grade glass in civil construction. With the federal government endorsing national recycling and recyclability targets for packaging, what can manufacturers do?

Increase recycled content
As manufacturers of grocery products, the first key step is to increase the amount of recycled material contained in product packaging. To drive this, the federal government has endorsed the packaging targets proposed by the Australian packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) to increase the recycled content of packaging to 30 per cent by 2025. Many manufacturing companies have already committed to this goal.

Design for re-use, recycling or composting
The second step is to increase the use of recyclable or compostable packaging where product freshness, safety, quality and food waste is not compromised.

Design for source separation
Use the Australia Recycling Label (ARL), which provides consumers with simple instructions on how to dispose of each packaging material type. The addition of tear tabs on multi-material packaging such as plastic blister on a cardboard backing, will encourage consumers to separate materials prior to placing it in the recycling bin.

An industry-wide approach
There are many food and grocery manufacturers that have already made commitments in the above areas. However, while implementation may appear simple on the surface, there are some real barriers that need to be addressed in order for product manufacturers to make progress. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) has collaborated with APCO, government, the packaging industry and the resource recovery and recycling sector to overcome the following barriers:
• Availability of recycled packaging materials
Retailers and manufacturers have broadcast their intent to purchase greater volumes of recycled plastics such as recycled PET (rPET), which is currently in short supply, particularly given the high standards for food grade materials. The AFGC is working with APCO and the packaging industry to increase availability of these materials.
• Research and development
The AFGC is working with APCO and the packaging and recycling industries to develop new compostable plastic substitutes that are fit-for-purpose and meet food grade and medicinal product packaging specifications. Additionally, research and development of new processing technologies that have the potential to recover materials currently landfilled are also required. For example, chemically processing end of life plastics (Numbers 4-7) into oil-based products such as bio diesel.
• Practical infrastructure planning
We will continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to identify the recycling infrastructure needs of a circular economy. This will be aligned with the changing mix of packaging materials as the availability of recycled packaging material increases and as new processing technologies are developed over the next five to ten years. This whole-of-supply-chain approach is critical to provide industry and government with confidence to invest in the plant and equipment that is necessary to achieve the national packaging targets.

The good news is that environmentally and economically-sustainable solutions are possible for all stakeholders along the packaging supply chain without compromising product freshness, safety, quality, or increasing food waste. But this will only occur with collaboration, with decisions based on facts, and undertaking research and development to provide new technological solutions for today’s issues.