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Australia could save millions if we just recycled better – as a new report calls out the bad practice of 'co-mingling' recyclables

Sharon Masige
  • Australia could recoup $328 million a year if it improved its recycling system, according to a new report from accounting firm EY.
  • The report suggests Australia should move toward a circular economy model, where it continually uses its resources.
  • It also encourages Australia to adopt better sorting practices before materials are collected, rather than afterward.

Australia could save millions if it built a top-notch recycling system, according to a new report from accounting firm EY.

The firm estimates that more than $300 million worth of recyclable material a year in Australia could be captured and used in manufacturing and construction if we built a world class recycling system locally.

"EY estimates that only $4.2 million worth of recyclable material is captured from our waste each year," it said in the report. "If we built a world-class recycling system, EY estimates that we could capture up to $328 million worth of recyclable material."

The report also found that Australia could be missing an opportunity worth up to $324 million a year by not taking advantage of the recyclable material going into its bins. As a result, EY is calling for Australia to improve its kerbside recycling efforts to get the most out of materials inside it.

Our current kerbside recycling system sees different material such as plastic, metal, paper and glass being 'co-mingled'. This can increase the risk of contamination and reduces the quality of the materials that are collected. The lower quality in turn impacts the value of the material.

For example, EY explained that a clean high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk bottle that is collected is worth $500 a tonne, compared to ones that are collected as mixed plastic waste, which is worth much less, at $110 per tonne.

And when recycled material is contaminated – think food waste among the recyclables or the wrong type of waste in the recycling bin – it costs a lot to sort and remove them. Contaminated waste costs recycling material processors up to $200 per tonne to chuck in landfill, the report said.

According to the Guardian, EY Climate Change and Sustainability Partner, Terence Jeyaretnam said we should start treating waste "as a tradeable commodity like iron ore or gold" rather than viewing it as waste.

“The old way of sorting our waste is not the right fit for 21st century Australia," he said in the report. “Not only does it lead to poor environmental outcomes, it’s preventing us from grasping an opportunity worth hundreds of millions per year.”

EY is now calling for Australia to consider improving how recyclables are sorted before they are collected. It referred to European recycling schemes that involve dividers in bins or colour coded bags that make for easier sorting.

"While we are seeing early signs of hope with some councils responding to the recycling crisis by introducing additional bins to better separate materials, more needs to be done to extract the full value of this resource," the report said.

EY also suggests Australia moves toward a circular economy, that encourages the continual use of resources. For example, using glass for glass containers where possible, rather than downcycling it – creating something of lesser value – such as to make road base.

EY's report comes after the Morrison government pledged $20 million to boost Australia’s recycling industry - part of the government’s broader plan to ban the country’s export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres overseas.

The government export ban followed the tough stance developing nations are taking to prevent waste being transported to them from developed countries. In May, Malaysia announced it was sending 3,000 metric tons of contaminated plastic waste back to its countries of origin, including Australia, Canada and the US, Associated Press reported.

At the time, Jeff Angel, executive director of Sydney-based environmental group The Total Environment Centre, told Business Insider Australia that “we need more action on the ground" to make recycling mainstream. He also said that it made sense that the we ban waste exports.

“It makes absolute strategic sense that Australia also says, 'Why don’t we stand on our own two feet, when it comes to recycling?'” he said.

“We’re really good at collecting the material for councils and businesses et cetera but now we just have to get a lot better at actually reprocessing it and making it into new products.”