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Issue #1824      May 30, 2018

Recycling leadership

My name is Annett Finger. I’m a marine ecologist and I represent the Boomerang Alliance in Victoria. The Boomerang Alliance is, as the name says, an alliance group. We have 47 environmental groups under our banner. We develop policies, investigate and campaign on waste issues – from mattress and tyre recycling to waste, to energy and container refund schemes – our focus is on plastic pollution and one of our strategy objectives is to achieve a 70 percent reduction of Australia’s contribution to plastic pollution entering the oceans by 2020.

That is certainly ambitious, but let me paint you a picture about plastics in our oceans. There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating on the surface of our oceans alone. It’s impossible to wrap our heads around that figure. But next time you go to the beach, have a look and see what plastics you can find. Read the papers: plastic pellets being released on Warrnambool beaches.

Millions of polystyrene pieces got cleaned up from the reed beds of the Yarra last week. Plastic production is booming. We are using more plastic for less time. Waste infrastructure is lagging behind and overwhelmed. The amount of mismanaged plastic waste entering our oceans – if we do nothing differently from now on – is set to triple from 2015 to 2025 (from 50 to 150 million megatonne)! This should scare us.

This is why I do what I do. And, briefly, my job is to campaign for a container deposit scheme in Victoria – a scheme that decreases litter, increases recycling rates and bears a potential $50 million in income to community and charity groups. I have just come back from the Big Bottle tour – where we towed an oversized Coke bottle around regional Victoria to tell the story of Victoria missing out while all other mainland states are moving on container refund schemes. It’s been a massive hit with people but also with councils.

I’ve been invited to speak about the China-invoked recycling crisis. So, what has China done and what is happening in Victoria and Australia? China announced in July last year that from January 1 this year, they will not accept any more “dirty” recycling materials. With dirty they mean actual contamination, but also contamination of one material with another. Our kerbside recycling is collected as co-mingled waste – and gets sorted and baled in MRFs – material recovery facilities. They still take recycling materials, they just don’t want the lower quality bales that require them to sort through and clean.

The effect this ban has had on Australia is more severe in Victoria. Most councils here sell their kerbside recyclates to a recycling company like Visy, who process it in an MRF and then sell-on the bales to onshore or offshore places. How much has been going offshore has been hard to track. Recently the CEO of Sustainability Victoria penned an article stating, “only seven percent of recycling has been going overseas”. So why do we have a crisis? Because he’s included building waste in that calculation and most likely went by weight. Plastic is light. A lot of our plastic recycling has been going overseas and, likely, most of that is not going there anymore.

Visy lost a lot of their buyers and in Victoria, where they could, they pulled out of contracts with councils. In NSW, Visy gets paid to take recycling waste. Also, they now have a container deposit scheme, which diverts drink containers from kerbside and produces a cleaner, pre-sorted recycling stream that can still be sold to Chinese and other Asian markets. Victorian councils have been frantically looking for new ways to get rid of their recycling, and whichever way you look at it, are set to incur higher costs to deal with residents’ waste.

So, what’s Boomerang Alliance’s position? In a nutshell, we see this as a great opportunity to build a long-term viable onshore recycling industry, coupled with incentives and mandatory requirements leading to a circular waste economy. And, as we have always done, we work with all stakeholders.

What has been the federal response? Cricket noise. In Victoria, where more councils have been hit than any other state, the Minister for the Environment, Lily D’Ambrosio, reacted by establishing a recycling taskforce. BA is a member and our director attended one meeting. So far, environmental and community groups met separately from industry groups.

I have only been briefed very briefly, so I can’t say too much about it, but I would very much hope to see a mix of stake holders discussing possible solutions in the very near future.

What I have noticed on my recent tour is the renewed, increased noise and appetite about waste to energy. BA has provided input into discussion papers in NSW and Vic. To sum it up, here is the most recent “Waste to Energy” comment from our director, Jeff Angel:

“Key Commonwealth and state environment ministers must embed higher resource recovery in the economy. Incineration diverts recyclables from genuine recycling – and uses mixed waste which poses serious toxic pollution threats. There may be plans for new recycling industries, but by the time they eventuate as actual projects they will find the rush to incineration has locked up their resources.”

To wrap up and tie in nicely with my campaign: what can you do as a caring community? Join our campaign to bring a container deposit scheme to Victoria. It is an environmental scheme but also a social one: it produces a real trickle-down effect. On my travels with the Big Bottle, I have heard many stories. Please spread the word and thank you so much for your time!

An address delivered at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, April 29, 2018.

The Beacon

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