In Germany, the most successful recycling nation in the world, there is a city that provided services to recycle a dead dog or a deer head.
In South Korea, another champion of the circular economy, a garbage inspector can rummage through your trash and fine you if you put the wrong thing in the wrong bag.
In Kamikatsu, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, villagers sort their household waste into 45 categories (bottle caps are sorted by color, bottles containing soy sauce or cooking oil are separated from PET bottles , etc.).
Nowhere in Australia has recycling taken so long, but last month Victoria announced that all residents would receive a fourth purple wheelie bin for recyclable glass, creating the first uniform Australia-wide scheme. ‘State. Elsewhere, local governments have created a patchwork system where the rules change at council boundaries.
Is this a significant step towards a more efficient recycling system, or will this be another well-intentioned move that will do little to reverse Australia’s bad history of waste management? waste ?
Australia has a series of recycling targets for 2025: 100% of packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70% of plastic packaging recycled or composted; 50% of the average recycled content included in packaging; and the elimination of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging.
But there is no agreed way to get there.
Part of the dilemma with recycling is that it works best when items are separated early in the process, but that means bin collection arrangements become increasingly complicated and households are expected to do more sorting work.
Will technology one day allow households to throw everything in one bag and let the robots do the sorting?
Suzanne Toumbourou, chief executive of the Australian Council of Recycling, is skeptical.
“That would be nice. I think it would probably be unlikely, at least in the near future, to have a facility that sorts everything,” she says.
“Everyone has a role to play.”
Until then, we have a hodgepodge of curbside recycling options, and collected waste is taken to facilities that have different ways of filtering, heating, screening and sorting into different streams. Some installations can detect different types of metal, glass, plastic and paper, directing the materials to different paths.
But it all still starts at home.
There’s no global gold standard, but four-bin systems dominate some of the top-performing recycling countries. An analysis of the main countries shows that the system planned by Victoria is common. Glass is separated, as is food or organic matter from the garden. Then there are the other recyclables (paper, cardboard and some plastics), and then a bin for everything else.
In some countries, this system is supplemented by tariff plans. People are charged per kilo for everything they throw away.
Necessity was the mother of invention for many countries that excel in recycling, says Trevor Thornton.
The Deakin University hazardous materials management lecturer says some of the top performers – like Germany and South Korea – simply didn’t have the space for the landfill, “so they had to do Something”.
Australia, with its vast plains, has had a countdown with its waste.
Victoria’s Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio says she knew something was ‘terribly wrong’ when curbside litter collection suffered a ‘significant collapse’.
In 2018, China stopped accepting 99% of global recycling. Australia’s reliance on shipping its waste overseas has been revealed to be unsustainable and councils have had to start stockpiling as they work on a new solution.
“A lot of reforms were needed to put in place a system in Victoria that people could rely on,” says D’Ambrosio. “People in one part of the state had a whole set of rules, but all you had to do was move to another municipality to find different rules.”
D’Ambrosio says the lack of consistency made it difficult to change people’s behaviors around recycling and “led to a lot of confusion.”
Fast forward to October 2022, when the government began rolling out the system first announced in 2020.
It’s best practice in Australia to have all four bins, says D’Ambrosio, especially for separating glass.
“I heard very clearly from the industry that glass put in the same bin as paper, cardboard and plastic contaminates everything in there,” she says. Shards not only render other materials useless, but interfere with machinery.
Toumborou agrees that household labor is essential.
“Source separation is a very important part of getting great recycling results,” she says.
“The cleanest stream you’ll get from recycling materials is when it’s source separated – and the source is households.”
Start a virtuous circle
A good circular economy starts with product design, says Toumborou. It is preferable to have “monolayers”, containers with a single type of plastic, for example. Once you have more products that are easier to recycle, it’s up to consumers to “choose wisely and dispose wisely”.
Successful countries invest in education, better recycling routes and innovative ways to turn waste into useful products. In many cases, they convert waste into energy, a nascent idea in Australia.
Thornton says there needs to be more of a focus on creating less waste in the first place, as well as efficient recycling. There is a danger, he says, that the availability of recycling will lead people to just over-consume while thinking that the waste will all be reused.
Reduce, reuse, recycle is the mantra. But the simplicity belies the complicated economics behind a circular economy. Businesses that collect curbside trash and businesses that turn it into something new and useful both need to be economically viable. This means that they need a critical mass of products to recycle and a market to buy all these recycled materials.
D’Ambrosio says local councils obviously want to find a lower price for collection and recycling, “no matter the outcome”.
“But in the end, the cheap prices led to the collapse of our system. We never want to go back there again.”
If the flows leaving households are cleaner, it is more interesting for companies to set up facilities to receive them.
“It’s about everyone doing their part along the chain,” says D’Ambrosio. “Do we really need to fill our fridges with all this food knowing we are going to throw it away? Pay attention to your own consumption. Adapt it to your needs and you will have less material.
Innovations around Australia are making a difference at the margins.
In Adelaide, some public bins now have exterior shelves for bottles and cans that attract a 10c container deposit so ‘community collectors’ don’t have to rummage through rubbish to get them.
There are local programs such as Curby, where households can collect targeted materials such as soft plastics and coffee pods in a special bag, scan a QR code before putting it in their recycling bins, and track it as it is separated from other waste.
Work continues on lingering issues, such as recycling solar panels.
As Australia aspires to a true circular economy and zero waste ideal, recycling is likely to become more complicated. More wheelie bins, more innovation, more options. Toumbourou says robots and artificial intelligence will make recycling smarter, but households will have to continue to do their part by sorting their own waste.
“One trash can to rule them all? Probably not,” she said.