Waste management and recycling were headline environmental issues of the 1990s, in the halcyon days before climate change ripped Australian politics apart.
In a remarkable back-to-the-future moment, the Morrison Government is now looking to refocus public attention to the plight of recycling, as it looks to prove its environmental credentials in a safer and more popular setting, far removed from the unease of climate and energy policy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is lining up this year’s Federal Budget to spend millions on new recycling infrastructure across Australia following the collapse of Chinese demand for a number of streams of Australian recycled waste.
This has resulted in stockpiling of thousands of tonnes of recycled plastics across Australian towns and cities and questions about how the efforts of Australian households can be properly recognised once more.
The move to invest in recycling infrastructure is a far more comfortable place for the federal government to show Middle Australia it really does care about the environment, even if it is equivocal on far more existential threats, like climate change.
Saving recycling, with any luck, can be a sufficient distraction while credible in its own right.
Kerbside recycling is tangible, terrestrial and has an enduring feel good factor that for the past 30 years has relied upon broad public participation to separate out materials from the household waste stream for re-use.
Reducing the environmental impact of the product supply chain for thousands of different products is useful, but complex. Some recycling, like some products, is better than others. For some materials the actual environmental performance of recycling can get pretty marginal.
It’s generally safe to treat each recycled material like a resource and be guided by cost in how it is used. Metals like steel and aluminium have clear value and are easily recovered, as do papers and cardboard.
Plastics are more challenging because they are ubiquitous, lightweight and diverse. Attempts to recycle them in Australia lacked economies of scale and a declining plastics industry to supply. So in the end we exported our waste plastics to China.
Now they are over supplied we have bales of recycled plastic going to landfill, when the idea was to re-use them.
This has triggered increased talk of waste to energy including a trial facility near Perth. Despite the gloomy words from ARENA, it’s a stretch to suggest burning garbage is just another form of renewable energy.
Maybe the stockpiled materials could simply be stored. Australia has abundant and cheap landfill and the value of recycled plastics is likely to increase over time, given their feedstock is fossil fuels. That would close the product stewardship loop eventually, rather than the appearance of solving for now but simply converting them back into fossil fuels.