War on Waste for horse owners.
The planet is drowning in plastic and, while a lot could be done at all levels to rein the tide in, right now, it seems that the plastics manufacturing industries want to lock us into uncontrolled plastic production for decades to come. Everything we buy is wrapped in one or more layers of plastic!
Horse people, like everyone else, are end consumers of plastics so is there anything we can do to reduce the amount of plastic that is sent to landfill? And can we contribute to a more sustainable future?
The circular economy
“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production” say the lyrics of the song by Pete Seeger. And when I first dreamed that we should offer readers a range of constructive ways to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic to stop it going to landfill, I was relying on the premise that virtually all plastics can be recycled – that is, they can (at least in theory) be ‘melted down’ and re-birthed into new plastic products – this is what is known as a circular economy.
There is a lot of information on the circular economy. And in my research, I came across excellent government funded reports (from Australia and around the world) that agree we all need to urgently transition into a circular economy.
Essentially, the objective of a circular economy is to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life, in doing so, it reduces the consumption of virgin materials and the generation of waste.
In Australia, our use of resources generally exists in what can be called a linear economy, where we take resources to make into products that we then use and dispose of as ‘waste’.
Yet circular economies already exist for some materials – a good example being steel. In the US, for example, the biggest steel companies are based on recycled steel which in 2013, produced more than 60% of the total raw steel in the country.
Interestingly, plastics are currently much more valuable by weight than steel. They are even more versatile than steel so the experts say there are no real reasons why the plastics industry could not follow the lead already set by steel manufacturers.
The main obstacle to transitioning towards a circular economy is motivation. At a local and federal level, government leaders cannot see past a possible increase in waste recovery and management costs. This is despite the economic opportunities such as greater employment in Australia.
In a submission to the Senate inquiry into the waste and recycling industry, the Waste Management Association of Australia states that ‘for every 10,000 tonnes of waste recycled within Australia, 9.2 jobs are created’. South Australian data has also revealed that some 25,000 jobs would be created over five years if waste was recycled and reused, rather than dumped or exported.
There are two primary business models under the circular economy:
Those that foster reuse and extend the life of a product through repair, re-manufacture, upgrades and retrofits; and,
Those that turn old goods at the end of their service life into as-new resources by recycling the materials they contain.
They both rely on responsible use by everyone involved in producing, selling, using and recycling of the product/material at the end of its useful life.
In the past, Australia was simply exporting all recyclable waste (metals, paper and cardboard) to a number of Asian countries, with China taking almost 4.5 mega tonnes in 2016-17. Their decision to ban the import of foreign waste from January 2018 has had a direct impact on recycling and waste management practices in Australia, leading to many recyclables being buried in landfills throughout most states.
But, for all the doom and gloom, there is a system that is working well in Australia and it is championed by a ‘Product Stewardship’ scheme.
Product stewardship schemes
Product stewardship is a way of managing the impacts of certain products and materials through the agreement that everyone involved in producing, selling, using and disposing of products has a shared responsibility to ensure that those products or materials are managed in a way that reduces their negative impact – throughout their lifecycle, on the environment and on health and safety.
RedCycle is a working example of plastic product stewardship, and at the time of writing, it seems to be working successfully in Australia.
RedCycle has teamed up with a large number of well-known food brands to establish collection points for soft ‘scrunchable’ plastics at supermarkets throughout Australia. Everyone pays a voluntary levy to cover the responsible collection and recycling of packaging.
And one of those materials they can recover is the quality woven polypropylene film that is used to package most horse feeds (read more about this here).
The materials they recover are delivered to Australian manufacturing plants for recycling into a variety of secondary products (but they can’t be turned into their former selves).
Buy quality and reuse! Good quality plastic has many advantages. Products made with quality plastic can be repaired and reused for other purposes. Good quality plastic is also more easily recycled. Cheap plastic becomes brittle, breaks up into micro plastics that end up in landfill or washed away into waterways.
So, if you love the convenience of plastic products, choose trusted brands and products made with quality plastic, then find ways to reuse and/or recycle.
You can check the range of products made by companies like Replas (who sell a wide variety of timber-like products), as well as Downer or Close the Loop, who use the soft plastic to build roads made completely from recycled materials.
And while this system is an example of success, there are still many challenges.
I spoke with David Hodges, Managing Director of Plastic Forests, an Australian owned and operated business manufacturing products such as garden edging and wheel stops from soft plastics recovered by RedCycle.
“The biggest thing we are lacking is people buying recycled products” he says. “We can have a farmer send us three tonnes of plastic mulching film but they don’t buy three tonnes of recycled plastic products in return.”
He explains that some products are made more cheaply overseas using virgin plastic and there is an urgent need to establish more stewardship programs and other incentives to make Australian recycled products more competitive in the market.
“I can be the recycling hero and take all the [empty feedbags] from the horse industry” says Hodges, “but all the time horse people don’t buy Australian made recycled products in return, [because the cost of collection and processing makes them more expensive than the imported ones], we are losing the battle.
“We’re saving landfills, we’re creating jobs, there’s an economic benefit doing this in Australia” he continues. “But we are competing against imported products and this is why we don’t have a manufacturing and recycling industry in Australia.”
Over to you…
It seems the so-called ‘war on waste’ will have to be led by us – the end users – because plastic producers (oil companies) are planning to drown us in it. As demand for gasoline and diesel fuels wanes (think electric vehicles), fossil fuel companies are set to increase the production of petrochemicals (i.e., plastics).
How does the circular economy work?
- You encourage the design and manufacture products that are made from recycled materials (rather than virgin resources), that can be repaired and/or recycled back into the system;
- You establish repair centres as part of this design and manufacture process, so that items can be repaired;
- You establish collection systems so that items unable to be repaired are collected, rather than disposed of in landfill;
- You ensure that there is adequate and appropriate recycling facility infrastructure in place, taking into account location and sorting capacity; and
- You encourage manufacturers to purchase recycled materials, thereby closing the production loop.