Recently the Australian packaging industry admitted that it cannot meet the 2025 target to recycle 70% of plastic waste. The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation has estimated that in 2021 only 16% of plastic waste was recycled and forecasts that the shortfall is too vast to correct before 2025.

But this is not news! Frustratingly, news articles have reported the same thing every year for the last few years.

So the question is, why can’t we recycle our plastic?

We’re new here

For years we passed the buck on plastic recycling and sent our waste offshore. Back in 2018, China announced that they would no longer accept plastic waste from other countries due to contamination issues. They were followed closely by India, who announced their ban in 2019. Australia was suddenly forced to create our own recycling industry, almost from scratch.

Plastic waste recycling targets are voluntary

The 2025 packaging targets were established in 2018. At the time they were known to be stretch targets and it was hoped that this would encourage significant movement towards a circular economy.

But the targets are all voluntary. From the packaging companies’ perspective, there is no legal requirement and little pressure from retailers to meet the targets. And since meeting the targets will incur additional costs, why would any business do that unless they had to?

Low demand for recycled packaging

And why would the packaging industry create a product for which there is limited demand? There’s no getting around the fact that recycled packaging costs more than virgin materials. If a levy is introduced on the virgin materials, recycled materials will be more attractive, demand will increase and the recycling industry will expand.

Recycled packaging costs more

But the end result is the same however we get there: increased packaging costs.

At this time of high inflation, passing on additional costs to consumers would be a bit tone deaf. But our big two supermarkets increased their profits over the last year. There’s surely some capacity to absorb extra costs for the sake of doing the right thing.

Plastic isn’t actually that recyclable

Even if there was significant demand by the packaging industry for recycled products, in Australia our recycling facilities are currently limited to what’s called “mechanical recycling”. Plastic waste is sorted into types, shredded, heated and then molded into new products. However, every time plastic is heated and reshaped, it’s properties are degraded. It’s not possible to shred bottle tops and reform them into new bottle tops because they wouldn’t be fit for purpose anymore. Soft plastics cannot be turned into new soft plastics. Recycled plastic can only be used a limited number of times before it becomes too degraded to be recycled again. And mechanical recycling also requires the waste to be meticulously sorted and clean.

There are new methods of plastic recycling called “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” where plastics are broken down to their original components and then rebuilt. This type of recycling is more forgiving of waste contamination since the process breaks the waste down. Research and pilot projects are currently underway so that advanced recycling plants can be established in Australia, but these are still years away.

So what’s the alternative?

Until advanced recycling plants and new systems for collecting waste are in place, it’s not possible to recycle the majority of plastic waste that Australia produces. Calls to offer soft plastic recycling services to replace the void left by the collapse of RedCycle are absurd once you are aware of the five points above. Why create another stockpile of plastic?

And there’s a separate conversation that needs to be had about whether we should be still using and recycling plastic at all. (Microplastics in the food chain, anyone?).

Luckily there are a few ways to reduce the plastic waste that we bring home:

  1. Shop at a bulk food store with your own containers and avoid bringing home the waste in the first place.
  2. Try making a couple of things that you’d normally need to buy in plastic from scratch, like cereal bars.
  3. If these two options aren’t feasible right now, then buy the largest bag or container available to cut down on the total plastic you buy.
  4. Batch cook meals and freeze them, or meal prep at the weekend, to avoid needing to buy convenience foods after a long day.
  5. Make use of returnable and reusable take-away food containers like Returnr or Replated.

If you have any other suggestions to reduce plastic waste, drop a comment below!