In the past five years, packaging manufacturing, disposal and resource recovery have come to the forefront of the national discussion surrounding sustainability and product stewardship, particularly in food and beverages, writes Geoff Parker, Australian Beverages Council CEO.
Gone are the days of the “take, use, dispose” linear model, transitioning instead to a philosophy which focuses more on design efficiency, consumer education and responsible end of life through reuse and recycling. I have seen this change firsthand, in both the attitudes of consumers and the priorities of beverages companies when envisioning what their businesses look like both today and in the decades ahead.
As the proud voice of the non-alcoholic drinks industry in Australia, the Australian Beverages Council Limited (ABCL) is leading the sector on a range of sustainability issues. Through established container deposit schemes (CDS) the drinks industry is the only FMCG sector with an established extended producer responsibility framework in place and has been shaping resource recovery efforts through design, development, rollout and review nationwide. In recent years, our scope has expanded to helping ensure the multiple network operators within these schemes entrusted to collect our materials are as efficient and successful as possible.
On this journey, we have consulted with consumers, the waste industry, scheme coordinators, regulators, all three levels of government and countless other stakeholders with an aim to unite a supply chain ecosystem both passionate and driven to make a change. Thankfully, there has been no lack of enthusiasm. We have found that Australia is ready for a substantive shift in how we use, dispose of, and process packaging materials. Within this discussion, there are some key areas we are well-placed to advocate for, and that can lead to considerable positive change in Australia’s waste and recycling landscape.
Our key takeaway and underlying frustration through this process has been a recognition of the detrimental effect and missed opportunities that a non-harmonised, patchwork quilt approach federation model has had on CDS and kerbside collection networks. As an example, the differences by state, territory, and even local council regarding bottle caps collection and accepted containers has proven cumbersome at best and burdensome at worst. Through discussions we have found that this lack of harmonisation creates confusion for consumers trying to navigate this space of wanting to ‘do the right thing’. Such confusion can often lead to containers ending in landfill rather than in the recycling stream. In fact the APCO CDS Material Flow Analysis, released early last year found that in 2018-2019 approximately 100,000 tonnes of CDS materials were not making it into the system in CDS eligible states. We estimate that to be almost 1.7 billion containers, a confronting number indeed.
We fear this confusion about recycling and recyclability is endemic across the country. Whether this uncertainty leads to everything going into the red waste bin or the yellow bin through “wishcycling”, both are harmful to recovering through the CDS the cleanest waste material stream possible for recycling into new containers. This has led us to the position that national harmonisation of instructions for consumers in CDS and kerbside is essential to ensuring recyclate remains in the circular economy as food-grade material and doesn’t end up as textiles or landfill.
The other missed opportunity related to beverages, outside of the billions of containers going to landfill each year, is bottle cap collection. Our own research and the important work of environmental clean-up organisations have repeatedly demonstrated that caps are littered at a much higher rate than their respective containers. We find that this disparity is highest in areas which do not accept caps in CDS, kerbside, or both. Our consultations with the waste and recovery industry indicate to us that only the oldest of material recovery facilities (MRFs) do not have the necessary equipment to process caps. We are greatly encouraged by multiple governments’ dedication to investing in waste infrastructure. If the newly announced MRF in Katherine, Northern Territory is any indication, we will quickly find this processing issue disappear.
Although unable to be made into new bottle caps with current technologies, caps (or closures) are nevertheless a high-value material which can be remade into a variety of value-added products such as wheelchairs, wheelie bins and bollards. Economics aside, from a litter reduction and resource recovery perspective, universal collection of caps is essential to ensuring our industry remains at the forefront of responsible environmental stewardship. We invite members of the food and beverage ecosystem to speak to your local stakeholders and take a unified stance that encourages harmonised caps collection nationwide across CDS and kerbside.
Our second, and just as important, key initiative to improve consumer participation in recycling is harmonising consumer messaging under a hybrid CDS/ARL recycling logo. Our industry stands apart from others in that it enters the Australian Packaging Covenant with an already established mandated producer responsibility scheme in most jurisdictions, with the entire country to be covered by a CDS by 2023. The combined logo proposed by APCO at the end of 2021 contains all the necessary information to ensure containers make it into both programs in a format that is easy to understand and action.
The ABCL invites APCO and all the readers of this piece to join us in requesting jurisdictions to nationally harmonise to recognise the CDS/ARL logo as an accepted alternative to the 10-cent wording currently mandated in CDS regulations nationwide. From a labelling perspective, this is the best way our industry can ensure we play our part in reaching the National Packaging Targets and the National Plastics Plan goal of 80 per cent of supermarket items displaying the ARL on pack by the end of 2023.
Finally, ABCL and the beverages industry have an ambitious vision for what CDS can look like into the future. Food, beverage, and FMCG products increasingly speak the same language when it comes to utilising rigid plastics for our products. The push to make all packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 means that many packaging formats are transitioning to the common plastics we use every day, mainly PET, HDPE and PP. Along with glass and aluminium, which many different products now use, most plastic container packaging can be recovered and recycled through CDS. We encourage governments and other sectors of the shopping trolley to consider expanding the scope of CDS to include these products, to ensure we capture the most materials possible to facilitate a robust, domestic-based circular economy.
From a beverage industry perspective, there is truly no time to waste.
This article was first published in the March-April 2022 print issue of PKN Packaging News, p28.