CHOICE guide to plastic recycling

Only 15% of plastics we consume are recycled. Here’s what you can do.
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  • Updated:26 Feb 2009


Plastic bottles

In brief

  • Although plastics recycling rates have more than doubled over the past decade, we are still recycling only a fraction of the plastics we use each year.
  • Not all plastics with the “recyclable” symbol can be recycled in your local area.
  • 1.7 million tonnes of plastics were consumed in Australia in 2007, of which 15% (or 261,109 tonnes) was recycled.*

* Source: PACIA 2008 National Plastics Recycling Survey

Please note: this information was current as of February 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

Over the past decade ready access to kerbside recycling has more than doubled our plastics recycling rates, yet consumer confusion about exactly which plastics can be recycled in different council areas throughout Australia is hindering even greater progress. According to the latest figures from the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA) 2008 National Plastics Recycling Survey, we still only managed to recycle 15% of all the plastics we consumed in 2007 (or 33% of all plastics packaging).

Recycling makes even more sense when you learn that manufacturing plastics from recycled content uses only 30% of the energy required for making plastics from fossil fuels which pollute, making the process both cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

A quick straw poll around the CHOICE office revealed an abundance of contradictory messages when it comes to what plastics can be recycled. So if you, too, think you should know more about recycling plastics, here is the information to help make best use of the schemes on offer in your area.

Video: Waste reclamation

We find out what happens to the rubbish you put out for recycling.


No standard recycling rules

While about 97% of Australian households have access to a council-run kerbside recycling scheme, there are no standardised recycling rules telling councils what to collect. Glass, paper, cardboard, metals, plastics and green waste can all be recycled, but what you can put out for kerbside collection depends entirely on where you live.

“It would be much more efficient if we had standard acceptance criteria across all councils,” says Mike Ritchie, General Manager, Marketing and Communications at SITA Environmental Solutions. Until the commodity prices crash in September 2008, the market price for recycled plastics was very high, so councils and other businesses could offer free recycling services. But what local councils accept varies, depending on the transport cost, and/or proximity to, a materials recovery facility (MRF).

Recycling rates still too low

Australians recycled just 15% of all the plastics we consumed in 2007, which is 33% of all plastics packaging – the total plastics recycling rate includes durables as well as packaging. The packaging waste from household and public place recycling constitutes almost half of the total plastics recycled, but to put this into perspective, its lifespan is generally minute compared with durables such as pipes, which may last for years.

Jeff Angel, Executive Director of the Total Environment Centre, says the figures are also exaggerated because they don’t include the plastic packaging on imported finished goods, and include the recovered packaging that’s sent overseas for recycling or other purposes. “But even if 33% was correct, it’s abysmally low,” he says.

“The recycling rate in Australia has been improving over time, but there is still a lot of scope within the packaging and waste industries to improve these statistics. Greater public place recycling, better event recycling and deposit legislation would certainly help increase recycling rates,” says Planet Ark’s Brad Gray.

CHOICE verdict

To improve recycling efficiency, all three sectors in the community need to work together: governments to implement a more consistent approach to recycling, industry to invest in state-of-the-art materials recovery technology, and the community to reduce plastic consumption and then to recycle, recycle, recycle…



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