Opportunities in recycled plastic

According to PACIA’s National Plastics Recycling Survey, 1,433,046 tonnes of plastics were produced and consumed in Australia in 2010-11, while only 287,360 tonnes were recycled (20%).

That leaves over 1 million tonnes of plastic going to a landfill or into the environment, a huge waste of resources requiring more crude oil to be extracted to feed our ongoing needs. As Australia looks to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, plastic is a great place to start.

Plastic is a highly recyclable material. Depending on the type of plastic and its purity, it can be recycled into many items:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, 1) – polyester fabric, insulation
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE, 2) – plastic lumber, tables, benches, bins
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, 3) – vinyl flooring, traffic cones
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE, 4) – composite lumber, plastic bags
  • Polypropylene (PP, 5) – carpet, rigid containers, office folders, bins, furniture
  • Polystyrene (PS, 6) – packaging, insulation

One of the biggest barriers to recycling plastic is collecting it post-consumer and sorting it into the above types. Recycled plastic is generally collected ‘co-mingled’, and must be cleaned and sorted by costly machines. When different polymers and other contaminants such as food residue are mixed, they do not bind to each other well, and the resulting plastic compound is likely to have flaws that will cause it to tear or break.

Some of the most promising uses for recycled plastic are thus compounds that can accommodate multiple polymer types. Plastic and composite timber substitutes are a prime example, and can also use flexible film plastics, which are generally excluded from kerbside recycling because they cannot practically be sorted and can get tangled in sorting machinery.

Within Australia, at least 5 - 7 plastics reprocessors manufacture such composite materials. These companies produce a range of products from traffic management components, outdoor furniture, signage, decking and walkways. These materials are long-lasting without requiring treatment with toxic chemicals such as arsenic than can leach into the environment.

The biggest inhibitor to processing of mixed plastics is not collection or reprocessing infrastructure but end market sales of recycled content products. The biggest opportunity to grow this industry is to increase the purchase of these products over those made from virgin materials, especially focusing on the key markets of state and local governments and industries such as viticulture and mining.

ECO-Buy is undertaking a project supported by the Australian Packaging Covenant to increase the uptake of mixed recycled plastic products by facilitating the procurement of these products in key sectors. The project will involve a detailed analysis of the market for mixed recycled plastic products, a survey of buyer behaviour in the local government, state government and viticulture sectors, and identification of the opportunities for, and barriers to, increasing demand in these sectors.

These findings will be used to develop a toolkit of practical resources to encourage and enable buyers to give preference to recycled products. The toolkit will be launched in conjunction with expos in Victoria and South Australia late in 2013. If you are interested in being involved in this project either as a supplier or a buyer, please contact sreardon@ecobuy.org.au or 03 9349 0403.