My materials blogs are about useful materials in the modern age. For the use of these to be sustainable we need to recycle as much as we can. With China becoming more picky about what they will accept from us, Australia is left with a large problem but not so much for us in SA, as we largely look after our own recycling.
It all stems from many years of container deposits (1975) and banning single use plastic bags (2009), an issue that other states are begrudgingly starting to accept. The big problem with recycling is sorting waste into its different types and to do that, you need a good management stream. The container deposit scheme gets members of the public to sort the easily recyclable and high end value items like aluminium cans, PET and HDPE plastics and glass. Otherwise these are just mixed with low value or negative value items.
Single use plastic bags are a hazard to recycling machinery and can’t go in your yellow bin. Your recycling will probably end up in landfill if you put them in your recycling bin. They can still be recycled via the REDcycle bins in Coles and Woollies if you return them and as they are either high or low density polyethylene and can be used to make long lasting eco products like garden sleepers. Less of them around means less in our bins.
It is a bit like vaccination, in that it is a percentage buy in issue. If everyone does it, then it works well, but if too many don’t then the system fails. More than about 5% contamination causes a major headache and that is why the Chinese are refusing our recycling.
We also have a problem with mixed products like plastic coated cardboard cups and biodegradable plastics versus long lasting plastics. Eco plastic products lock up the plastic as a very long lasting storage solution and need to be separated from biodegradable plastics.
So we need to think through the products that we believe to be sustainable and devise methods to enable the recycling of these goods. Maybe two green stripes on all plastics that go in your yellow bin for example, as an Australia wide initiative. We need schemes that enable the recycling of our materials and we all need to get on board to make them work.
We do not recycle batteries in Australia other than lead acid car batteries and about 8000 tonnes of valuable material ends up in landfill annually, where it becomes toxic as it degrades. Batteries are recycled in places where environmental laws are lax and only some products are retrieved, depending on economic value. Lithium is rarely retrieved, as it is about five times the cost of raw lithium (2017), something that will have to be addressed sooner than later.
We should lower our use of batteries until we have a recycling scheme, preferably in our own country so that we are aware of the environmental cost. If you use your drill twice a year you are much better off using a corded version.
Other areas of concern are our synthetic clothes and the pollution that their destruction leaves, our huge amount of electronic waste and of course our nuclear waste.
Coming up with the best solutions is a tough ask and it may take a while to get there. Those in the oil business are well aware of biodegraded oils within natural oil fields and lay the blame on various bugs called methanogens. These can quickly convert complex hydrocarbons to methane and carbon dioxide and so we are not surprised to learn of enzymes, bacteria and worms that are learning to eat our plastic waste.
Now this sounds like a great way to dispose of our plastic leftovers until you give it a little thought. Our modern world uses plastics everywhere, in our electrical systems, cars, surf boards, signs, paints, clothes, glasses, electronic equipment, surgical equipment, just to name a few items. Imagine the chaos if we invented a super fungus that lived on plastic and had a voracious appetite.
You would be left standing naked watching your house and car burn as the wiring was suddenly exposed and the fuel lines disappeared.