New opportunities from old plastics

Since China’s “National Sword” policy clamped down on recyclable imports in 2018, the world has been forced to pay more attention to where its waste winds up.

Australia exported 619,000 tonnes of its waste to China in 2017, and the effective waste import ban has led to well-publicised complications in the local recycling industry. Other neighbours in the region have subsequently returned Australian waste, encouraging us to handle more smartly what we discard.

Let us focus on plastic and have a look at the issue in a global context.

Research published by the University of Georgia puts plastic in perspective. In 1950, the world produced a total of 2 million metric tons of this substance. Plastics proved incredibly useful in countless applications, from packaging to transport to electronics, and the market could not get enough them. In 2015, annual global production had exploded to 322 million metric tons.

An industrialising China emerged as the destination for much of the world’s discarded plastic. Between 1992 and now, according to research published Science Advances in 2018, 45 per cent of this scrap was shipped to China. Due to National Sword, which put an immediate stop to this, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by the end of this decade.

Another worrying and much-cited piece of research projects that at the current rate plastics are entering the ocean there will be of it than fish (by weight) by 2050.

Is there good news hidden within these massive piles of garbage? Yes. The problem has been recognised by leaders, which is a vital step. Within Australia, right up to the very top, industry is recognised as the solution, especially within the manufacturing sector

As prime minister Scott Morrison told reporters in August, what is needed is, “industry leadership, and support for that leadership, and research, and design, and the identification of new products and markets, and how we can facilitate that, so you get a commercially sustainable waste management operation.”

The necessary capacity, here and elsewhere, has to be built and with urgency. In November 2019, Commonwealth environment ministers agreed that “waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres that have not been processed into a value-added material should be subject to the export ban.”

This starts in July with glass, then mixed waste plastics in July 2021, baled tyres by the end of that year, and mixed paper and cardboard by July 2022.

Whether you welcome it or not, the circular economy (CE) is becoming a necessity rather than a passing trend; and there is a lot of opportunity attached to it. Happily, manufacturers interested in CE approaches have inspirational Australian examples to look to. Here are a few working with plastics.

Replas has been taking pre-loved plastic and making products such as outdoor furniture and bollards from it since 1991. They work with a variety of plastics, with exceptions such as PVC and low-density polyethylene, and turn up to 4,000 tonnes of this into high-value products a year.

Licella has invested over $75 million since 2007 developing a process involving supercritical steam and catalysts to turn waste materials into useful components. For end-of-life plastics, they can “depolymerise” these into wax, oil and other chemical products. Among its projects is helping Timor Leste go “plastic neutral”. Their world-leading technology has been developed in collaboration with the University of Sydney, and it is likely you will hear more about them in 2020.

Polystyrene, agricultural plastic and old pipe are ingredients in railway sleepers made by Integrated Recycling. These sleepers are in use at heritage railways and in trials in Queensland and Victoria and contain 85 per cent recycled material. Their Duratrack sleepers have significant lifespan advantages over timber, and one kilometre of track laid saves 64 tonnes of plastic from landfill.

Plastic reuse innovators are not confined to the east coast. Greenbatch is a social enterprise founded by award-winning engineer Darren Lomman, with some pro bono help from WorleyParsons. They are working with schoolkids to collect PET plastic and reuse this as 3D printer filament. According to a 2018 profile, Lomman was moved to start his enterprise by the above-mentioned plastic vs fish prediction, as well as a complete lack of PET recycling available in WA.

Fortunately, the Western Australia capacity to recycle is improving. Bibra Lake’s Green Machines Lab launched in late-2018 to “unpollute the world.” The startup service to clean and process is able to reprocess a variety of plastics to the required quality for its clients.

These are just a few anti-waste warriors in the Australian manufacturing community. Due to the coming restrictions on recyclable exports, it is likely that others will join. As the optimists know, challenges come with opportunities.

More manufacturers are seeing the value in the circular economy, and realising that what was once waste can be reinterpreted and reused.

For those wanting to learn more about reusing resources, AMGC is holding a free event, The Path to a Circular Economy, on February 26 at Goulburn Workers Club. More information, including a list of expert presenters, can be seen here.