Australia has set itself an ambitious target — to recycle or reuse 80 per cent of the waste being produced in the country by 2030.
But as of 2020-21, our resource recovery rate stood at just 63.1 per cent.
At our current pace, Australians will need to reduce or recycle an additional 12.92 million tonnes of waste each year to hit the 2030 target.
These three countries are leading the way.
The system Sweden uses to recycle 94 per cent of its glass
As of 2019, Australia was recycling just 46 per cent of its glass.
In 2020, Sweden recycled 94 per cent of its glass.
Glass recycling is highly centralised in Sweden, with every glass container collected in the country sent to one processing plant in the province of Närke.
Private company Svensk Glasåtervinning processes the collected glass, with major firms such as the Swedish Brewers Association, food retailers and trade associations owning part-stakes in the company.
Svensk Glasåtervinning managing director Magnus Andersson said the glass recycling industry was “booming” in Europe and was the result of decades of effort.
“It’s been a system that we’ve been working on for at least 30, 35 to 40 years,” Mr Andersson said.
“It’s not good enough to just put in a landfill basically. For us in Sweden, that means you have failed.”
European companies have flocked to Sweden’s centralised glass recycling system to cut costs.
It’s much easier to remelt waste glass than melt down sand, soda and ash to make new glass — meaning producers can save about 20 per cent of their energy costs by recycling.
But Mr Andersson said the success of Sweden’s system may be due to cultural mindset in addition to economic conditions.
Recycling glass generates fewer carbon emissions than the creation of new glass.
He said most of Svensk Glasåtervinning’s customers see reducing their carbon emissions as a major issue, leading to major market demand for recycled glass in Sweden.
“I know that Australia has a background of maybe not being the most well-known country for good behaviour when it comes to the environment,” Mr Andersson said.
“I think it might be a mindset thing as well … if I look at the kindergartens and schools, preschools and such here in Sweden, there is an element of training.
“You’re aware of this Greta [Thunberg], the young kid from Sweden, right? That generation will not accept the behaviour we’ve been having in the past.”
Over three decades, South Korea turned around its food waste problem
Shifting the culture of an entire country towards recycling sounds like an impossible task but in South Korea, a concerted effort by the government has proved it’s possible.
In 1995, South Korea was one of the worst countries in the world for food waste, recycling just 2 per cent of its waste.
Today, about 95 per cent of its food waste is recycled, with private companies turning the collected waste into animal feed and fertilizer.
In contrast, around 56 per cent of food waste is recycled or recovered for composting in Australia.
With the launch of a volume-based waste fee system in 1995, the banning of food waste going to landfill in 2005 and a compulsory composting system introduced in 2013, the South Korean government incrementally transformed food waste in the country.
The system hinges on a “pay-as-you-throw” program, where food waste must be separated into special, purchasable bags and taken to specific bins that are able to weigh the bags and charge accordingly.
Local governments use the fees to operate food waste treatment facilities, along with a partial subsidy from the central government.
“After laying a foundation for the system, the government did lots of public relations work and educated citizens with the local governments and civic groups,” said Juchang Yi, director of South Korea’s Waste-to-Energy division in its Ministry of Environment.
Mr Yi said while the up-front cost of the food waste bags was relatively small, the cultural impact was huge.
“In Seoul, the average price of 3-litre food waste garbage bags costs 300 won (about 20 cents) a piece. Most people think it is not so costly and rather affordable,” Mr Yi said.
“Koreans started to see the pay-as-you-throw program as a way of furthering the common good.”
How the United Kingdom supports plastic recycling
Plastic recycling remains one of the biggest challenges in the recycling industry, and a sector where Australia has fallen sharply behind the rest of the world.
A report by mining figure Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation found Australia generates the most single-use plastic waste in the world per capita, with the equivalent of 60kgs of waste for every Australian per year.
Just 16 per cent of Australia’s plastic packaging is recycled.
In contrast, the United Kingdom is the world’s fourth biggest producer of single-use plastic waste per capita but recycles 49 per cent of its waste.
In March, UK Resources and Waste Minister Jo Churchill opened a $550-million facility built by recycling giant Viridor that will cut the UK plastic waste exports by 8 per cent.
Edward Kosior was the inaugural director of the RMIT Polymer Technology Centre, conducting industry-focused polymer research into recycling.
Professor Kosior said the difference between Australian and European recycling models stemmed from business strategy.
“The difference we see in Europe, the governments have said the research has to be business led. In Australia, we actually haven’t got that same focus,” Professor Kosior said.
Professor Kosior’s company Nextek has secured funding from the UK government and partnered with Viridor on a new project that uses CO2 to decontaminate recycled plastics.
He said the gap between scientific innovation and the actual firms doing the recycling in Australia had worse outcomes for the industry as a whole.
“In the United Kingdom, the government has sponsored detailed research and innovation into areas where there are blockages. In Australia, we haven’t seen that that type of focus on specific research,” Professor Kosior said.
“[Australia’s] university and innovation sector is largely disconnected from the plastics recycling field, and it has been for many years.”
What is holding Australia back?
Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world by landmass, with communities spread out to every corner of the continent, each with their own recycling policies.
The sheer size of Australia makes glass — a heavy, inexpensive material — particularly expensive to recycle in many areas.
While metropolitan glass is recycled efficiently, the waste glass in many regional centres is stockpiled or sent to landfill, with Australian companies preferring to import millions of tonnes of new glass rather than use recollected glass.
Australia’s size also necessitates its division into 537 smaller local government areas, all of which vary in what recycling services they offer their residents.
While a top-down approach was used to introduce a food waste system into South Korean district governments, Australian councils and shires still lag behind, with only 25 per cent of the LGAs in the country even providing food and garden organic (FOGO) bins.
While the size of Australia and its split across state lines is unavoidable, industry experts say the federal government has not done enough to help the recycling industry overcome these obstacles.
Suzanne Toumbourou is the chief executive of the Australian Council of Recycling, and said many problems could be traced to the fractured nature of Australia’s recycling policies from state to state.
“There are cultural differences between states, but there’s also hardline regulatory differences. A lot of national operators really struggle to navigate all of that,” Ms Toumbourou said.
“Our regulatory frameworks at the state level are all over the place. They are fragmented, they are diverse, and that makes it really difficult for industry to invest with certainty.”
The split between states has also contributed to the slow speed of recycling innovation in Australia, a barrier in catching up to more sustainable nations.
The collapse of soft plastics recycler REDcycle stemmed not from a lack of Australians willing to recycle, but from a lack of firms innovating to create new products with the collected waste.
“Different states have a different take on what innovation means in terms of recycling, because they consider it to be effectively working with a waste product. They see it through the lens of, ultimately, just risk,” Ms Toumbourou said.
Government promises action by the end of the decade
Ms Toumbourou has called on the federal government to establish a national framework for resource recovery to give certainty to industry, along with a dedicated cabinet position.
The government has committed to achieving a circular economy by 2030 and established a Ministerial Advisory Group on the Circular Economy in November to guide the process.
The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water said the government was committed to developing a “fit-for-purpose national regulatory arrangement” with states and territories.
“The Australian government is also leading collaboration with states and territories to improve the harmonisation of municipal waste collection and recovery across Australia,” a department spokesperson said.
A “roadmap for harmonisation” is due to be delivered this year, with recyclers around the world watching to see whether Australia will hit its ambitious targets.
“It will be interesting to see what you guys can do in Australia,” Mr Andersson said.
“I know there’s an uphill battle. Hopefully with the new politicians in place, we will see some change there.”