Environment Opinion

Addressing Australia's recycling crisis

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Plastic pollution remains a pervasive problem (image by hhach via Pixabay)

Recycling and rethinking our approach to sustainability is essential for a healthy planet, writes Dermot Daley.

IT IS NICE to think that the majority of people care about the land on which we dwell; about the physical beauty of the landscapes, about the unique flora and fauna around us, and critically, about the quality of the water and the air that we need to sustain us.

I live near the coast and love walking along the beach, especially in winter. I despair at the amount of man-made debris that washes onto the shore, so I collect as much plastic as I can carry. It seems such a small gesture as I visit this tiny stretch of our coastline and I am only able to gather material that I can pick up. The micro and nanoparticles elude me.

Most people would not deliberately rubbish their living room. Part of our litter problem is that paper and plastics get blown by the wind, sometimes things get dropped unnoticed and some people blithely discard what they no longer want. We have a serious problem with packaging, although some progress is now being made with biodegradable.

"Mindset", "materials" and "money" may be the three keys to managing "the great waste".

Mindset, the care factor, has crept backwards since the clever "Keep Australia Beautiful" campaign of a few decades ago. Having had some involvement in caretaker work in apartment buildings I frequently observed a lack of understanding in the separation of waste and recyclables. Local government authorities need to do much more to inform people about recycling, and to have clear policies and practices in place. Education and example are essential in developing a mindset of meaningful waste disposal.

It is important to get ‘em young.

Materials used in contemporary manufacturing offer a lot of scope for imagination and recycling. Most plastics in the system are derived from fossil fuels, essentially compounds of hydrogen and carbon, which can theoretically be reconstituted in different forms. Assuming that mineral oil is a finite resource, it is plausible that the heaps of discarded hydrocarbon plastics littering the oceans and coastlines and rivers of the world still have a material value and so at some point, it may be profitable to "mine" this resource.

Wouldn’t it make good economic sense to contain this asset before it further impacts the balance of aquatic life?

The money trail is a major factor in our dire need to manage the waste generated by our society. A problem arises when too many consumers adopt a lazy mindset and allow their lifestyle to be dictated to them by others who are focussed on profit above anything else.

There are plausibly as many industrial chemists engaged by industry to produce automobile paint the same shades as road tarmac as there are industrial chemists engaged in developing solvents and processes to convert superseded plastic hydrocarbons into viable reusable hydrocarbons.

Several years BC (before COVID) I was looking at replacing a side fence to my home and I thought there must be a recycled plastics product that could provide a versatile and durable modular alternative to the tired tradition of cutting down forests and milling the timber for post and rail paling fences. I thought of recycled plastic "syntal" seen around parks and reserves so I contacted several manufacturers and explained my requirement; but no one had a solution. Surely the subsequent failure of REDcycle should give us cause for thought?

Another area worth considering is the way we construct our shelter. Labour-intensive practices and materials supply shortages have led to liquidation of construction companies, and along with increased awareness of smart thermal and acoustic insulation, these all point out to a need to shift the paradigm. Timber framing practice (apart from some corner-cutting) has not changed since the Middle Ages.

Mortar bonded clay bricks were a beautiful feature of cheap labour in the 18th Century, but alternatives now include autoclaved aerated concrete (lighter, but dependent on aluminium filler, which could be better used), and fibre-reinforced blockwork (such as hempcrete, which was derailed by market forces in the mid-20th Century).

A clear example of our underwhelmed mindset occurred some years ago with the swift evolution of LEDs. Within a decade almost every household had replaced their cathode-ray tube TVs and computer monitors with compact, energy-efficient LED flat screens. But there was no sensible strategy in place to salvage the various electronic, vitreous and metal components of these devices, so many tonnes of valuable material went into landfill.

Surely, since the advent of the horseless carriage and throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, there has been sufficient notice of technological innovation to alert responsible authorities to the need to accommodate change. If utilitarian redundancy can be built into manufactured goods, why is there not a fiscal component to cover the complete life cycle of the item?

A new challenge is looming on the revolution horizon. There is consensus amongst those who give consideration to these matters that life on Earth is facing an existential crisis arising from man-induced change to the atmosphere, quintessentially due to around 300 years of generation of power from latent fossil fuel with extraneous untapped energy dispersed as heat, sound and light, confirming the fundamental principle that energy cannot be lost or destroyed.

We have been embarrassingly slow to accept the reality of our crucial crossroads, but even with electric vehicles (EVs) as a practical alternative to diminishing the polluting emissions impact of internal combustion engines (ICEs), of which there are tens of millions in use, most of the operators do not have the means to engage with a new EV. And there are simply not enough EVs in production to replace all existing ICEs. Further, EVs do not yet meet all of the specifications to satisfy the expectations of modern transportation.

So how do we economically and sensibly and responsibly manage the mindset, the materials and the money implications of resources lost or recoverable as we move into this new age?  

Don’t look at me, I’m not a technology expert or a powerful mover and shaker: I am just a simple poet wondering what will be and what might have been.

Dermot Daley is a fourth-generation Australian living in Victoria, who is now retired from construction project management​​​​.

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