Is recycling really worth it? Turns out, the system is far from perfect

Most Australians are pretty good at sorting their waste into paper, plastic, glass and organics – but what’s the point of recycling?

Doesn’t it just all end up in landfill anyway?

Not quite – but the recycling system is far from perfect.

Not all recyclables are equal

Did you know that it’s easier to recycle metal and glass than it is plastic?

Our recycling behaviours reflect this.

The packaging industry estimates that Australians only recycle about 16 per cent of plastic.

We’re much better with glass at 60 per cent, paper and cardboard at 68 per cent — and the best with aluminium cans at 81 per cent.

Helen Millicer, director of One Planet Consulting, says there’s a reason for this. 

“It’s easy to separate aluminium, for it to be melted down in a furnace then put back into product again,” she explains. 

A woman with short blonde hair wearing a black jacket and red shirt holding a plastic bottle and aluminium can.
Helen Millicer says plastics are harder to recycle than metal and glass – and that’s a problem that needs to be fixed.(Supplied:

Ms Millicer is a sustainability expert and consultant who works with governments and businesses on the issue of recycling.

“But plastics? There are so many different types of plastics and they’re not all compatible with one another,” she says.

“You can’t mix and match the same way.”

The collapse of REDcycle at the end of 2022 demonstrated just how difficult it is to recycle soft plastics – they were the only company in Australia offering to pick up your soft plastics, like single-use plastic bags and packaging, from shopping centres and recycling them.

There’s a whole host of reasons why recycling entities or companies struggle,” Ms Millicer says, “and they’re fairly simple.”

“The economics doesn’t stack up – it’s more expensive to fix and recycle things than it is to make them new.”

Recycling needs to improve

Ms Millicer believes there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to recycling – and we’ve proven we can do it better.

“Previously, batteries were all thrown into landfill, which is why we’ve had landfill fires,” she says.

“New programs have been established for the collection of these valuable products and the materials that they house.”

Like the new battery stewardship program, which recovers valuable materials — like magnesium, cobalt, zinc and lithium — out of old and used batteries.

“Likewise, we can do so much more with everything from our vehicles, all our transport fleet, with our clothing, with our products such as our computers and televisions,” she adds.

Veena Sahajwalla, founding director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at the University of New South Wales, says “we owe it to our planet to be able to recycle, re-manufacture these materials and put them back into our system.”

A woman with long black hair wearing a maroon suit jacket and black top stands upright with her hands folded.
Veena Sahajwalla is a leading expert in the field of recycling science. She believes much more can be done to not only recycle our waste but reduce it too.(Supplied)

We can go further by reducing our waste in the first place – and we’ve proven we can do that too, Professor Sahajwalla says.

“We’re looking at banning single-use plastics like cups and straws, so I think absolutely there’s room for that conversation about when something is really unnecessary,” she points out.

“Why do we need to package three or two avocados in a little tray with all that plastic around it? Mother Nature has created natural packaging around our fruit.”

We need to reduce and reuse too – not just recycle

The Minderoo Foundation’s No Plastic Waste initiative aims to create a world without plastic pollution, and reduce the use of fossil fuels to create plastic to zero. 

According to the organisation’s Plastic Waste Makers Index published in 2021, Australians make around 60 kilograms of plastic waste per person – which is more than anywhere else in the world.

There’s a chance that general attitudes when it comes to recycling could be making our waste problem worse.

Tim Kurz is a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia’s School of Psychological Science.

Head and shoulders portrait of a man with brown hair wearing a grey button up shirt.
Tim Kurz says recycling schemes can sometimes do more harm than good.(Supplied: University of Western Australia)

He says recycling initiatives can potentially increase waste rather than prevent it.

For one of his studies, he recruited 214 participants and found: “participants were 50 per cent more likely to choose a single-use plastic bottle for a drink instead of a glass tumbler when they were told that the plastic would be recycled to make clothes.” 

“If people have available to them a recycling scheme where they feel like their waste is going to go to a ‘good home’ as a result of them throwing in a bin, they’re actually much more likely to throw things away rather than reusing them,” Dr Kurz says.

“And they’re also much more likely to choose a single-use product rather than a reusable product to begin with.

“People reframe the act of throwing something into the bin into a pro-environmental act, rather than one that they should feel bad about.”

He believes that cases like REDcycle — where it was revealed that “recycled” plastic bags were being stockpiled in warehouses — will make people really think about where their waste is going.

“If it leads people to become sceptical and critical of recycling schemes, there is the possibility that they might focus a bit more on the amount of waste that’s coming into their household.”

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