Did you know you can recycle toothpaste tubes, medication blister packs and old make-up? If you didn’t, you’re certainly not alone.
- Recycling services are available for items that don’t go in council recycling bins
- Many of the services are free but very few Australians know about them
- The sector is very small and industry players say tougher rules are needed for it to grow
None of the items can be put in kerbside recycling bins, and recent research by Monash University found only about 5 per cent of Australians had used services designed to keep the hard-to-recycle items out of landfill.
The niche sector grew in Australia last year, but experts said industry incentives and penalties would be needed for it to become more mainstream.
Sydneysider, Lottie Dalziel offers a voucher to her online store customers if they send in their hard-to-recycle items.
Ms Dalziel’s website accepts shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, beauty products, kitchen sponges, coffee pods and plastic cutlery among other things.
“The program has only been operating for 14 weeks now so it’s relatively young, but we’ve already had over a hundred people send us their trash,” Ms Dalziel said.
The scale of Ms Dalziel’s operation is extremely small, however she represents just one of the 40,000 individuals or organisations that forward their collected waste on to recycling company, TerraCycle.
Big corporations funding hard-to-recycle programs
TerraCycle made its name coming up with ways to recycle hard-to-recycle items.
“The reason the toothbrush is not recyclable [through council bins] is because of the costs associated with the sorting and the collection and the recycling of the waste,” said general manager Jean Bailliard.
Companies such as Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Gillette spend millions of dollars on programs run by TerraCycle encouraging the recycling of their product packaging.
The waste is turned into park benches, playgrounds, and garden beds.
The chief of Australia’s Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association Gayle Sloan says industry players like TerraCycle challenged “take, make and throw away” thinking.
“The fact that the large corporates are on board just shows that it is something we all ought to be doing and they’re making it easier for us to do,” she said.
A small fraction of overall recycling
Figures from the 2020 National Waste Report show 43.5 million tonnes (or 43.5 megatonnes) were received for recycling in Australia last year from households, businesses, industry and construction.
Of that, 5.1 million tonnes were municipal household recycling.
To put it into perspective, TerraCycle said last year it collected 61 tonnes, which is a tiny fraction of total recycling.
While small, the company did record a 30 per cent jump on its collection rates compared to the previous year.
“These are really niche programs that are set up aimed to target those consumers who are really aware and are really dedicated to taking that extra step in dealing with all of their waste,” said Jenni Downes from Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
They also play other important roles, she says, such as coming up with innovative ways to recycle waste and encouraging a change of habit in consumers.
“I think they’re quite innovative and responsive and demonstrate that there are solutions to problem waste which the broader industry can then learn from.”
Looking to Europe
Mr Balliard looks to his home country of France and it’s new “circular economy” laws as an example for Australia to follow.
A circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste.
Many European countries have legislated to put responsibility back on the producer of packaging for its recycling and reuse.
“We would like to see a carrot-and-stick approach, where you have incentives like tax rebates or grants to get those initiatives started but also pressure on companies that just don’t want to act … there can be some sort of tax or mandate for companies,” Mr Baillard said.
“Regulation is hard without some degree of acceptance among the community,” Ms Downes said.
“But to get that broad-scale change across entire industries or even the entire economy, I do think regulation plays a large part in getting that to happen quickly.”
Last year the Federal Government announced a $190-million injection into Australia’s recycling industry and enacted a ban on sending waste overseas.
Ms Sloan praised the Government’s actions to date, but says a market for the recycled material now staying onshore needed to be created.
“Government needs to require Australian recycled material is used here and needs to do other things such as government procurement of recycled material to create that market demand, because it’s not going to happen overnight because it hasn’t happened to date,” she said.
Supermarket reuse scheme coming to Woolworths in Australia
A reusable packaging system called Loop will be launched in Woolworths supermarkets in Australia later this year.
The TerraCycle program already operates in a number of overseas countries and has 500 products available.
Brands that sign up to the scheme in Australia will provide reusable containers for their products in store which can be returned or collected when an online order is delivered.
“Loop is in charge of managing the logistics, getting all the empty packaging back, getting them sanitised professionally and then sending back to the company so they can refill them, so it always stays in circulation and never becomes waste” Mr Balliard said.