By Bonnie Serov

Australia is facing a pressing challenge to manage its plastic waste effectively while working towards ambitious recycling targets. The answer to this conundrum lies in advanced recycling technologies. In this blog, we’ll explore why Australia should invest in these innovative solutions, highlighting the advantages and addressing some of the potential challenges.

The Plastic Problem

Picture this: in the 2018-19 financial year, Australia used over 3.4 million tonnes of plastic, but we only recycled about 11.5% of it. The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation estimates that in 2021 only 16% of plastic waste was recycled. Obviously, progress is slow.

While Australia is performing above the global average, it ranks poorly for efficient collection and sorting of plastic (16th place), plastic waste management (14th place) and private sector commitments (10th place). That’s not good news for our environment or our future.

There’s a number of reasons why plastic is so difficult to recycle. But advanced recycling could hold the key to improving our performance in the future. To reach our plastic waste targets, government and industry must get serious about implementing innovative solutions to our current recycling methods.

What is Advanced Recycling?

In Australia, our major recycling facilities use mechanical recycling methods where plastic waste is sorted into types, shredded, heated and then molded into new products. Unfortunately, this method requires the plastic to be extremely clean, a particular problem for food plastic waste. Additionally, there are limits on the type of recycled products that can be produced because the plastic polymers degrade each time they are heated.

Advanced recycling refers to a collection of industrial methods to break down waste plastic into its original chemical building blocks (think oil or gas). The raw material can then be manufactured into new products, without worries of degradation.

Research and pilot projects are currently underway so that advanced recycling plants can be established in Australia. But an industry on the scale needed to tackle all of our plastic waste is still many years away.

Advantages of Adopting Advanced Recycling

The shift to advanced recycling has several advantages over continuing with traditional mechanical methods. These include:

1. Handling Challenging Plastics: Advanced recycling is suitable for dealing with a wide range of plastics, including mixed, multi-layer, flexible, and contaminated plastics that cannot be processed using traditional mechanical recycling methods. This means it can tackle plastic waste that would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerated.

2. Addressing Specific Plastic Waste Streams: Agricultural plastics and food plastic packaging can be difficult to recycle through conventional means. This helps reduce the environmental impact of these specific waste streams.

3. High-Quality Recycled Products: It can produce high-quality recycled plastics that meet food safety standards. This means recycled plastics can be used in a broader range of applications, including food packaging.

4. Economic benefits: Australia has the technical expertise and existing infrastructure, like refineries and steam crackers, that can be leveraged to develop a thriving advanced recycling industry.

Challenges Facing Australia’s Advanced Recycling Industry

There are currently several obstacles that prevent the widespread adoption of advanced recycling in Australia. These include:

 1. Innovation and Collaboration: Developing and scaling up advanced recycling technologies requires innovation, collaboration across the supply chain, and further investment to expand pilot projects. It will take time and resources to establish a mature industry.

2. Government Support: Government support is essential for launching and growing this new industry. Policymakers need to recognize the benefits and provide the necessary support.

3. Regulatory Hurdles: Harmonizing government definitions, policies, and approvals can be a barrier to the adoption of advanced recycling. Clear regulations and standards are necessary to ensure safe and effective operations.

4. Awareness and Understanding: There is a need for greater awareness and understanding of advanced recycling technologies to grant the industry social licence to operate. The public often fail to distinguish between advanced recycling and waste-to-energy (incineration) technologies.

Your Role in the Recycling Revolution

Until advanced recycling plants and new systems for collecting waste are in place, it’s not possible to recycle most of the plastic waste that Australia produces. As you’re reading this, you might be wondering how you can contribute to reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills. There are several ways you can reduce your plastic waste:

  1. Choose reusable bags, containers and bottles over the single-use option.
  2. Shop at refill stores like the Manly Food Co-op.
  3. If that’s not feasible, buy groceries in the largest pack available, which will cut your overall plastic consumption.
  4. Avoid packaged convenience foods by batch cooking or meal prepping.
  5. Make use of returnable and reusable take-away food containers like Returnr or Replated.

Summing Up

Australia possesses all the critical elements necessary to launch a new industry of advanced recycling for plastics. If executed effectively, these technologies can improve Australia’s plastic waste recovery rates, contribute to a more sustainable and circular economy, and meet our plastic waste reduction targets.

To succeed, advanced recycling requires coordination across the entire supply chain, involving waste management, technology providers, polymer manufacturers, refinery operators, plastics manufacturers and brand owners.

It’s time to establish a collective vision that promotes research, development, innovation, and collaboration to secure a cleaner and more sustainable future for all.