After years of doing the right thing by separating our garbage so that our glass bottles, newspapers and plastics can be recycled, Victorians are now being told that all that recycling could be, well, a waste of time.
According to the Municipal Association of Victoria, a decision by China to place a ban on the import of recycling materials from outside the country has resulted in several councils having their recycling contracts cut back by our waste companies. If this continues, councils will have to stockpile millions of tonnes of waste or worse, dump it all in landfills.
Our company, BioPak, which was established in 2006, is the largest manufacturer and distributor of environmentally sustainable disposable food packaging in Australia, which means our products are designed to be repurposed rather than ending up in the local tip. It also means that we are acutely aware of the seriousness of the situation. Let's be clear: Australia is facing a potential waste crisis – we are running out of landfills, no matter how many more we build. Every year, Australians send more than 6.2 million tonnes of organic waste to landfill, which include everything from food scraps to garden clippings and cardboard boxes.
In 2016 alone, Australians sent about 2.2 million tonnes of plastic and about 1.6 million tonnes of paper and cardboard to landfill. The landfill problem is not one limited to Victoria or even Australia - the issue has been troubling policymakers across the world, especially in the United States and Europe. We are well aware of what this means: landfills will eventually fill up, no matter how many we build.
So, what can we do?
Well, we need to focus on more than recycling, for starters. While continuing to encourage more councils to recycle waste, we believe the time has come to find other ways to deal with this huge landfill problem. In other words, we need to consider alternatives, such as compostable foodservice packaging, including those ubiquitous coffee cups. It means we need to start talking about a truly circular economy, where we design and produce foodservice packaging from environmentally friendly, responsibly sourced rapidly renewable materials, such as paper from managed plantations, agricultural by-products such as the stalks of sugar cane after the sugar has been extracted and compostable bioplastics.
Then comes the hard bit: to help guide that compostable packaging and remaining food scraps through the economy, from café or restaurant to workplace to green waste bins. Eventually, those green waste bins are processed at commercial composting facilities where their contents are turned into nutrient-rich compost for use at home – or in large-scale commercial agriculture and land rehabilitation.
A major benefit of producing compostable, bio-based food packaging is that through commercial composting it can be diverted from landfill along with any remaining food residues at the end of its life. In the process, the methane gas that organics emit when they biodegrade in landfill is eliminated.
This is not futuristic thinking by any means. The compostable foodservice packaging is widely available and commercial-scale compost infrastructure is growing at a rapid pace to address the huge amounts of organic waste that mostly goes to landfill. European countries including France and England have committed to phase out and ban non-compostable foodservice packaging within the next decade.
In Britain, where the debate has accelerated in the past year or so, the Ellen MacArthur foundation - a think-tank that works with business, government and academia to build a framework for a circular economy – recently released a report looking into compostable packaging. After three years of investigation, the interim report concluded that compostable packaging provides the only genuine solution to ensure foodservice packaging, including coffee cups, is diverted from landfill.
Here in Australia, BioPak recently signed an agreement with one of the big four banks, which has converted all employee foodservice outlets in their head office building to collect compostable food packaging.
And we have launched a national program to encourage cafes and other venues to put our compostable cups and packaging into special bins, which will be collected and recycled into compost. BioPak is committed to doing the right thing, designing, making and distributing food packaging that is sourced from renewable materials, which means contributing to a sustainable life cycle - rather than the packaging that has a single-use, before it ends up at the local tip.
In a truly circular economy, our ultimate objective is zero material going to landfill. It's an ambitious goal but one that we believe is achievable. All we need if for our politicians and business leaders to start paying attention, not just in Victoria but nationally.
This article was featured in The Age on 12 January 2018.
[Richard Fine is the founder of BioPak. With additional input from Gary Smith, who is BioPak's chief executive officer.]
[Photo: Karleen Minney]