Buy recycled goods or shut up about about recycling

Tired of recycling-related news? My friend, this just isn’t your day.


This website has given a lot of attention to the “circular economy” push in Australia – which is late, which is better that never – including its recycling component. It’s an undeniably important issue, for reasons that readers will be familiar with.


Today the spotlight on plastic recycling is particularly bright, with 200 industry, government and community delegates in Canberra for the first National Plastics Summit.


Of interest is a much-needed “overhaul of Commonwealth procurement rules,” expected to be announced. The PM has made it clear that what’s important for recycling to succeed is the purchase of recycled goods.


“Through months of consultation with industry, consumers, retailers and brand-owners, the one issue everyone comes back to is the need to increase demand for recycled products,” Scott Morrison will tell the summit, repeating the point in his UN address last September that any solution needs to be market-based.


The “demand for recycled products” piece is unsurprising. Last August, @AuManufacturing spoke to a series of plastic recyclers about the recent attention being given to the topic. They were pretty well universal in what’s needed to grow recycling: for people to buy what they’re selling.  


There have been recent push announcements – grant funding for R&D on recycling technology and factories for transforming yesterday’s waste into today’s products – but without pull then nothing works.


Today there’s expected to be more push, and sure, that’s important. According to the government, investment in six new plants worth $250 million in total is needed to process the plastic we’re currently exporting. And the option to export mixed waste plastics (currently 187,000 tonnes annually) will disappear altogether mid-2021.  


But without market pull – assuming those half-dozen factories get built – what happens? Nothing.


Awareness of the plastic waste problem has risen. Even the PM gets it, and is including the famous Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s plastic/fish/ocean/2050 figure in his speeches.


But if nobody buys recycled products, then what’s the point of any of this?


My favourite way of framing the issue is borrowed from Mark Yates, who founded Replas in 1992, a long time before anybody cared about what they’re talking about in Canberra today.


“The true recyclers are the people who purchase recycled products,” he told us last year.


If you care about the problem of waste, you’ll become a recycler. This goes for industries, governments and consumers. Don’t talk about the problem of recycling if you don’t care enough to buy recycled products.


– Brent Balinski, editor, @AuManufacturing


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