By Mike Foley
Employment in recycling is on the rise, with the industry generating three jobs for every job in landfill as the federal government scrambles to meet ambitious waste reduction targets.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, who is pushing for legally binding targets to boost recycling, which has flatlined in Australia for years, said the sector was in the midst of a jobs boom, with 2800 positions created since last year’s election.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says the country is in the midst of a recycling jobs boom.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
But the country’s recycling rate remains relatively low, particularly for environmentally damaging plastics. Just 13 per cent of plastics is diverted from landfill each year, compared with 81 per cent of building materials, 58 per cent of organic materials and 62 per cent of paper and cardboard.
The government is aiming to massively and rapidly increase plastic recycling to 70 per cent of all waste produced by 2025 under its commitment to the international High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution by 2040, which includes Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
Plibersek launched a $250 million Recycling Modernisation Fund last year in a bid to meet this goal while dealing with the impact of the Morrison government’s ban on various forms of waste exports, which includes a veto this year on sending plastic rubbish offshore.
The fund has spent $118 million to date on building new waste processing facilities or expanding existing ones across 126 projects, generating a total of 1 million tonnes of extra recycling capacity for all waste. Current projects include 16 focused on recycling glass, 60 on plastics, four on paper and cardboard, 12 for tyres, and 34 for multi-materials.
The fund has generated 865 jobs so far in NSW, 416 in Victoria, 487 in Queensland, 556 in South Australia and more in other states and territories.
“From tyre recycling in Alice Springs to plastic recycling in Dandenong, we’re creating new jobs and keeping waste out of landfill,” Plibersek said.
“This is great for the environment, but it’s also great for the economy. For every job in landfill, there are three jobs in recycling. We’re in a recycling jobs boom.”
According to the most recent figures, Australia generated around 76 million tonnes of waste in 2020-21, including 25 million tonnes of building and demolition materials, 14 million tonnes of organics such as green waste, 12 million tonnes of ash, 7.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste (mainly contaminated soil), 5.8 million tonnes of paper and cardboard, 5.7 million tonnes of metals and 2.6 million tonnes of plastics.
Plibersek announced in July that $60 million of the $250 million Recycling Modernisation Fund would be dedicated to facilities for “hard to recycle” soft plastics including shopping bags, bread bags, cling wrap and chip packets.
The $118 million in federal investment so far has been matched with $116 million from state and territory governments as well as $454 million from industry.
Plibersek has been lobbying the High Ambition Coalition to make its target to phase out sales of plastic waste products by 2025 legalling binding, amid a push from other members of the treaty including China and the United States to water down the commitment.
She has warned that producers and importers face tougher regulations unless they step up to deliver on Australia’s recycling and reuse targets, arguing that while some companies are investing millions of dollars to be sustainable, some “cowboys” are undermining the sector’s good work.
Last year, state and federal ministers agreed to new targets for 2025, including making packaging 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable; recycling or composting 75 per cent of plastic packaging; using 50 per cent recycled content in packaging; and phasing out unnecessary single-use plastics.
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