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Solving Victoria’s waste problem – is all recycling created equal?

Recent international restrictions on the import of waste materials have left Victoria’s (already stretched) resource recovery industry reeling. Stockpiles across the state, of otherwise recyclable material, continue to grow rapidly. And, so too does the fire risk. Following the 2017 fire at the Coolaroo recycling plant, EPA Victoria upped its scrutiny and began shutting down such plants until high-risk stockpiles could be addressed (which, in at least one case, meant sending hundreds of thousands of tonnes material to landfill). In light of this, Victoria’s intended transition to a circular economy looks… challenging.

Fortunately, there are a number of promising developments that could help increase our economy’s ‘circularity’. For example, Alex Fraser has just opened a new glass recycling facility, supported by funding from Sustainability Victoria, to create clean, ground, recycled glass sand for use in road and other construction projects. Sustainability Victoria has also provided assistance to Downer EDI and Close the Loop to trial the inclusion of soft recycled plastic in asphalt binder. Given Victoria’s healthy pipeline of infrastructure projects, these (and other similar) technologies present an unprecedented opportunity to boost the demand for recycled materials and to deplete our stockpiles without sending valuable resources to landfill.

However, as promising (and preferable to the current state of affairs) as these recycling technologies are, they cannot alone lead to a truly circular economic model. These technologies ‘down-cycle’ materials from a high value form (e.g. bottles) to a lower value form (e.g. sand). In effect, this aligns the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that all natural systems tend towards higher states of disarray (entropy). A resource recovery model based solely on such technologies risks establishing a ‘downward spiral’, where materials are recycled only until they reach a zero-value form. Waste to energy projects present the same concern.

A circular economy must also include ‘up-cycling’ processes, adding value to reclaimed materials and creating more complex manufactured products. Recent trials by Sustainability Victoria, Integrated Recycling and Monash University of recycled plastic railway sleepers are a good example. Establishing robust up-cycling processes is inherently challenging. Doing so basically pushes against the second law of thermodynamics. However, it is not impossible. The creation order, structure and value from disarray is one of the defining features of the global economy.

In short, we should certainly embrace technologies that can help us address our immediate resource recovery problems. However, we should not let these quick wins lull us into complacency. The problems faced by our resource recovery industry have been decades in the making. Closing the loop on a circular economy could take just as long. We have only just started the journey. We should keep moving.

 

This article was written by Ben Sichlau, Principal at Point Advisory.