The truth about plastics

Resource Recovery

May 17, 2018


MYTH: We can keep using plastic without consequence

FACT: Since industrial production began in the 1950s, we’ve produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics, and an estimated 76 percent of that has already gone to waste. The annual global production of plastics skyrocketed from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 400 million tonnes in 2015.

The increase is largely due to single-use plastics used in packaging. Single-use plastics account for half of all plastic production. These plastics, like food wrapping, water bottles and plastic bags are sometimes discarded as litter and end up choking waterways, rivers and lakes.


MYTH: Plastic is only a rubbish problem

Half-decayed plastic bottle covered in sand at the bottom of a lake or river

FACT: According to the UN, over one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year from ingesting our carelessly discarded plastic. These plastics break down into smaller pieces called microplastics.

Microplastics end up in the human food chain when we eat contaminated fish and seafood. Chemicals from these plastics may enter our body, potentially damaging our health.


MYTH: There is no market for recycled plastics

Bales from a Material Recycling Facility (MRF)

FACT: The global recycled plastics market reached a value of US$37 Billion in 2016 and is expected to increase to US$51 Billion by 2022.

All plastics can be recycled, with hard plastics like PET and HDPE (type 1 and 2) being the most common. This is followed by PVC and low-density polyethene (types 3 and 4 respectively). Plastics that are difficult or not cost-effective to recycle are often designed for long-term use and can usually be repaired or repurposed.

In Australia, recycled plastic is used to create durable plastic timber, bollards, modular benches and even water bottles.


MYTH: There is a single solution to the plastic problem

Finding a solution to the plastic problem

FACT: Bans, fees and recycling are all part of the solution but ultimately we need to work across the entire supply chain to reduce the use of plastic, and improve the quality of plastic for recycling.

Manufacturers need to rethink their use of plastic, making it either easier to recycle by not using two different types of plastic for the same product (think PET sleeves on HDPE bottles or PVC sleeves on HDPE bottles), and clearly labelling the recycling instructions. By improving the potential to recycle plastic products, we can increase the quality of the commodity, and encourage more people to recycle correctly.

Government also has a role to play through proactive recycling policy, levies and waste initiatives like the banning plastic bags. From July 2018, plastic bags will be banned in Western Australia and Queensland, joining South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory, which already have plastic bag bans in place.

New South Wales’ Return and Earn container deposit scheme is a great example of government taking the initiative to recover littered plastic bottles from the environment, and sorting them into a single stream at the source of collection.

Individuals and the community can also make a big impact by educating themselves about what’s recycling, using the right bin, and choosing products that are more sustainable. Next time you’re at the supermarket, consider how much unnecessary soft plastic packaging is on your fruit and vegetables, or individually wrapped biscuits.

Waste management companies like Cleanaway have a role to play in helping Australians understand good recycling behaviours, and making the right bin available. By improving the quality of materials that are collected, we can maximise the potential for recycling, giving these items a new lease on life.