Australia's recycling crisis or amazing opportunity? - Part 4 – Recycling is still waste

May 14, 2018

Australia's recycling crisis or amazing opportunity? - Part 4 – Recycling is still waste

While recycling (and recovery) is a great last line of defence, it’s nowhere near as effective as avoiding the waste in the first place.

A recent articlewhich appeared in ‘The Conversation’, written by Jenni Downes, a Research Consultant for the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS in Sydney posed the question;

Is waste still waste if it gets recycled?

You may have seen the waste hierarchy, which prioritises actions based on how much they benefit the environment.  The 2 main sections of the waste hierarchy are waste management (ok) and waste avoidance (better). 

Recycling it sits fairly low down the waste hierarchy, in the waste management zone.


While recycling is standard practice in most Australian households, (although the current crisis may impact that), it is still something we do to waste, not a way to actually avoid it altogether.

While recycling is magnitudes better than landfill, because it replaces virgin materials in the manufacturing process, the process still consumes energy (and other resources), and costs money.

In addition, for many materials, particularly plastic and to some extent paper, recycling is also a downgrading process. These materials can only be recycled a certain number of times before they degrade beyond all use. At that point they can’t even be used for waste-to-energy, and they generally end up in landfill.

On the other hand, if we could reduce the amount of material that needs to be recycled, or better yet, the amount that needs to be produced in the first place, these problems would disappear.  

Where do we start?

If we tell ourselves that it’s not waste if it gets recycled, we are avoiding moving up the hierarchy and taking more important actions that would have greater potential impact.

Similarly, with the current cry of ‘zero waste’, which actually means ‘zero going to landfill’, it’s easy for companies to set targets that focus on recycling and recovery, rather than setting targets for the more complicated task of actually minimising their waste.

The first step is seeing recycling (and recovery) for what it is – a last line of defence.

Minimising waste is more important than managing it, and we need to keep focussing on that.  While better consumer choices can play a role, improved resource management and smarter product design would be much more helpful.

China has already banned all non-reusable containers and, in Germany, plastic and glass bottles are washed and sterilised and refilled dozens of times, giving businesses an incentive to put their products in multi-use containers

We need the Australian Government to take the opportunity this ‘crisis’ presents to think beyond recycling, invest in waste reduction and reuse, and support businesses moving to reusable products and systems.

You can find a fantastic article on making waste obsolete here.

Thank you to the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS for the graphic.