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INDUSTRY IN CRISIS: Australia's big waste problem

News Corp Australia
28th June 2018 12:11 PM

BY THE end of the year an estimated 2.6 billion takeaway coffee cups will have been used, briefly, and chucked in Aussie bins.

In a few council areas such as Brisbane, both cups and lids can go in yellow recycling bins - the city uses an estimated 156 million cups a year.

But because of their waterproof lining, most of those cups will go straight to landfill.

They are the latest symbol in a national move against single-use plastics, and may just disappear from coffee shops within the next five years.

That's if the Federal Government adopts the recommendations of a new Senate committee report that reveals the extent of Australia's recycling and waste crisis.

The report has been issued just as Australia gets used to grocery shopping without free plastic bags to rely on, and recommends phasing out all petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023. 

That would mean goodbye to balloons, straws, takeaway food containers that can't be reused and plastic cutlery. 

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It's one of 18 recommendations the committee made to help end Australia's waste problem and fix an industry it described as being in 'grave danger'.

"Waste is a fact of life; the evidence indicates that the quantity is only going to increase; yet there cannot continue to be an expectation that 'just putting it in the bin' will work as an adequate waste management system," the report said.

You heard it Australia. Putting rubbish in the bin is no longer good enough to deal with the country's massive and ever-growing problem with its rubbish.

The committee want Aussies to cut down on the waste they create - hence the proposed ban on plastics that have a very short life actually being used. Its effect on oceans, made known across the world by documentaries like Blue Planet II, came under fire.


Diver videos fish eating refuse: Cigarette butts are a major pollutant in our seaways.
Diver videos fish eating refuse: Cigarette butts are a major pollutant in our seaways.


"The enormity of problems created by plastics requires a holistic approach," the report said.

"More direct measures are needed to help tackle this problem more immediately."

Australia is behind other countries in moving on plastic pollution. The European Union proposed earlier this year to implement a similar ban, concentrating on products like cotton buds and straws.  In 2002, Bangladesh banned the light plastic bags that Queensland and many other Aussie states continued to use until this month.  

Experts have welcomed the recommendation. Dr Paul Harvey from Macquarie University's Department of Environmental Sciences said prevention always started at the source.  

"Australia's dependency on single-use plastics has sky-rocketed over the last two decades and, as a result, we see that many of Australia's valuable natural assets, for example the Great Barrier Reef, are heavily polluted by plastic debris," he said in a statement.

"While there are some instances where single-use plastics are a legitimate requirement - medical situations are an example of this - the vast majority of Australians can live without single-use plastics."

He and other experts cautioned that alternatives must be introduced.

"If we are to break Australia's addiction to single-use plastics, we must provide environmentally-friendly and sustainable alternatives to avoid creating yet another problem in the future," Dr Harvey said.

QUT Associate Professor Leoni Barner said not all plastics were the same.

She advocated banning the single-use plastics that can't be recycled, such as Styrofoam.

"Cafes and restaurants should be discouraged from using use any single-use cutlery and crockery - even if they are made out of more sustainable material such as paper, cardboard or wood. Any single-use cutlery and crockery has an adverse effect on the environment," she said in a statement.

Queensland produces an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of waste every financial year, including nearly 1 million tonnes of waste in 2016-17 that was trucked in from other states. 

Over the border, New South Wales homes produced 3.69 million tonnes of domestic waste in 2014-15. 

That's 9.4kg each, every week according to this report.

And that's only the rubbish that goes into bins.

Litter, especially on Aussie beaches, has become a growing problem. Keep Australia Beautiful's latest National Litter Index from 2016-2017 found a 15.9% increase in litter found metres away from going into the ocean. 

Queensland was a particularly bad offender. Its beaches had a 54.9% increase in litter.

"With only one or two exceptions, cigarette and takeaway food packaging are the two biggest contributors and represent 56% of all litter found on the beach," the report said.

Takeaway containers, like the coffee cups the Senate committee want banned, made up 66% of all the litter found in Australia, alongside cigarettes and beverage containers like plastic bottles.

Magpie entangled by line: Rescuer tries to save magpie entangled by fishing line.
Magpie entangled by line: Rescuer tries to save magpie entangled by fishing line.


Waste reduction is only one part of the committee's report.

It has also questioned the role of private contractors in local council recycling schemes, and how much that's contributed to the country's growing warehouses of waste.

China's crackdown on low-quality recycling material shipped from overseas markets has put major pressure on Australian councils who relied on the Chinese market as part of their recycling model. 

Ipswich City Council sensationally announced earlier this year it would stop its kerbside recycling. It later revealed it had been dumping all the recyclables households had put into their yellow bins in with their regular rubbish for more than a month.

The council was forced to reverse its decision after swift community backlash, and has since gone on an education campaign to get the contamination rate in household recycling bins down.

Contamination happens when material that isn't recycled locally (like those pesky coffee cups) is thrown into the yellow bin. In the Ipswich area it was as high as 50 per cent. The council was one of many to make submissions to the senate committee. 

Now, the committee has recommended the Federal Government help local councils similarly educate householders across the country.

"Critical to the ongoing viability of Australia's recycling industry is that householders understand the impact that contamination can have on recycling schemes," the report said.

"The contamination of recycled material collected through kerbside has become a serious problem. This problem has been bought into stark relief as a result of China's decision to dramatically tighten restrictions on contamination rates."

The committee has also called for Australia to develop domestic demand for all those recyclables that used to go straight on a ship to China. 

"Saving the recycling industry from its current state of crisis requires increasing the demand for recycled products," the report said.

"The development of domestic markets will result in better environmental and social outcomes (local jobs, and reduced transport impacts), as well as reducing the risk associated with exposure to international commodity markets." 

Read all the Senate Committee recommendations here.