The benefits and, well, benefits! Your 11-step guide to effective recycling in Australia

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Feature Story - 27 May, 2013
Plastic trash is a problem all over the world. Many bottles and cans do get recycled, but billions don’t, so they end up in landfill, on our beaches, in our oceans, parks and other public spaces.

In Australia around 15 billion drink bottles and cans are consumed every year and fewer than half of these are recycled. In fact every single minute in Australia 15,000 bottles and cans are littered or thrown into landfill.

Many countries like Germany, Norway, Finland and Canada, states throughout the USA, as well as South Australia, have found a way to keep recycling rates at over 90% by offering a simple refund on bottles and cans returned at cost efficient “reverse vending machines” scattered around towns and cities.

So why can’t the rest of Australia follow suit? The trouble is, some parts of the Australian beverage industry are actively campaigning against this scheme, primarily Coca-Cola who say it’s “too complicated” and expensive for consumers.

Here are the facts you need to know:

  • It is not a tax. It’s a fully refundable 10 cent deposit returned to consumers when they give back their used bottles and cans for recycling. And overhead costs in a modern scheme are more than paid for by unredeemed deposits and the sale of the recycled materials.
  • Councils and taxpayers will save money. An independent study has shown that councils could be $183 million better off under a national Cash for Containers scheme. That means more money for other council services.
  • Recycling rates will rise. Cash for Containers schemes lead to rates of recycling of 80-95% and above. South Australia’s rate is nearly twice that of the rest of the country. No other recycling system around the world is proven to achieve this.
  • Litter and plastic pollution will fall. Groups like Clean Up Australia who are dedicated to cleaning up litter have repeatedly seen  that litter rates of bottles and cans are much, much lower in South Australia. This includes less rubbish on our beaches which ends up in our oceans.
  • Not all industry is opposed. Coca-Cola and its industry group the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) are vocal in their opposition to Cash for Containers. But other beverage companies have actively supported the scheme in South Australia and Northern Territory, including companies like Fosters and Diageo.
  • It would be a massive boost for the recycling industry. Recycling companies expect to invest $500 million dollars and create 3,000 jobs in Australia if Cash for Containers goes national. 
  • Fewer animals will die of starvation. The link here mightn’t be as clear, but two-thirds of Australian seabirds are affected by plastic pollution and around 25% of this comes from the beverage industry. Seabirds, turtles and some whales mistake bottle tops and other bits of floating plastic debris for food, so when they swallow too much their stomachs are too full of plastic to ingest real food. They literally starve to death on a full stomach.

Coke’s four-step strategy to crush our “Stop Coca-Cola trashing Australia” campaign has been to:

  1. Over-complicate the issue
  2. Deny the gravity of Australia’s recycling problem
  3. Scare consumers into believing beverage costs will skyrocket
  4. Propose a half-baked and inadequate alternative of putting more bins in the street.

Greenpeace is, and always has been, advocating for what’s good for the future of our planet. That’s why we believe Australians should be able to access the most effective and proven recycling scheme in the world. After all, public polls have found that 82% of Australians want a national Cash for Containers scheme.

Read on below for your definitive guide to Coke’s claims about effective recycling in Australia.

Myth #1: There is no problem. We already have high recycling rates in Australia

Coke says“Things are moving in the right direction. Under the current industry driven schemes, Australia's packaging recycling rate has increased from 39% in 2003 to 63% in just eight years.”

Reality: Packaging recovery overall has increased largely due to buoyant markets and demand for used cardboard. The recycling rate for beverage containers (Coca-Cola’s core business) is still abysmally low in Australia at around 30-40%. The exception is South Australia which recycles over 80% of beverage containers and of course has a well-established Cash for Containers system.

Myth #2: Industry leads recycling efforts

Reality: Coca-Cola and other beverage producers have a miniscule impact on recycling rates as the collection and processing, of used packaging is undertaken by local councils paid by ratepayers. Similarly, it is local councils and not the beverage producers that fund ongoing, day to day, litter collection; and of course it’s the valiant efforts of hundreds of thousands of Australian’s on Clean Up Australia day every year and other similar community efforts.

Myth #3: Coke cares about recycling

Coke says“Our engagement on the issue means that we do have views about the best way to achieve improvement and that at times we disagree with some proposed solutions.  But let's be clear we share the same objective of doing more.”

Reality: Coca-Cola says it “shares the [same] objective of doing more” – so long as this doesn’t place an obligation on them to engage in the ongoing recovery of used containers. The current National Bin Network is just such an example. The industry would fund for initial bins and the ongoing liability for collection and transport. But processing is allocated to public facility owners or local councils. Coke took the NT Government to court over its Cash for Containers scheme and ran misleading campaigns calling it a ‘tax’.

Myth #4: Existing kerbside system does a good job and a Container Deposit Scheme will undermine this program

Coke says“Today, many Australians use our world-class kerbside recycling scheme: more than 90% of homes have access to recycling and approximately two thirds of cans and bottles are recycled at home.” They also say that Cash for Containers is “inefficient, very expensive and would undermine the system that works well - kerbside recycling."

Reality: The idea that a container deposit scheme would undermine street recycling is blatantly wrong. Local governments and shires support Cash for Containers precisely because it will save them money – and this means rate payers’ money will be freed up for other important services. A report for the NSW Local Government & Shires Association showed that in NSW, councils would save between $63-183m per annum.. Every major report for environment ministers has demonstrated a net benefit to local councils of a container deposit scheme. In dozens of places around the world kerbside and container deposit recycling schemes exist happily alongside one another.

Myth #5: Cash for Containers encourages “scavenging” and is a supplement to the welfare system

Coke says: “Some people argue that [the 10 cent refund] is a supplement to the welfare system by providing income to people who scavenge bottles and cans from bins.  Some say it could help charitable groups with fundraising and provides pocket money for the kids. It promotes more recycling and less litter of bottles and cans and enables a network of drop-off facilities to be established for returning product.”

Reality: Some of this is true, but not all. Cash for Container schemes are proven to help the community sector. In South Australia for example, a Scouts owned operation turns over $22 million every year with profits ploughed back into camps, equipment and membership subsidies. It’s a no brainer that people who want to make some money would collect any discarded containers for the deposit, virtually eradicating this consistent litter problem.

Myth #6: The problem is that consumers don’t pay 10 cents

Coke says: “…as the Northern Territory experience has shown, under a Container Deposit Scheme (CDS) they pay up to 20 cents more per drink, because the cost of running the extensive infrastructure needs to be paid for and inevitably is passed on to consumers.”

Reality: The Boomerang Alliance has been advocating for ‘Cash for Containers’ for years. They undertook analysis of the Northern Territory scheme and found that Coca Cola, Lion and Schweppes (the companies that took the NT Government to court) were profiting from the scheme by overcharging consumers, as well as running very inefficient operations. It also showed that other beverage companies were not price gouging and did not raise their prices above the 10 cent deposit.

Myth #7: It hasn’t worked in the NT

Coke says“It’s worth noting that after 12 months of Container Deposit Scheme, Northern Territory recycling rates are well below the Australian average, with only one in every three containers currently being recycled.”

Reality: This is completely misleading. Northern Territory recycling rates doubled in the first 12 months of operation with more than 52 million containers recycled. This is consistent with rates around the world as new schemes are implemented. The NT scheme was on track to continue to raise recycling rates further and should reach the expected 80% within about 18 months.

Myth #8: It’s too expensive

Coke says“…it’s not just industry that says a CDS costs money - the Council of Australian Governments found the cost of a national CDS to the economy would be between $1.4 and $1.76 billion.”

Reality: This “cost” of $1.7 billion is complete spin. The actual financial impact on producers and passed through to consumers – as a result of the Boomerang Alliance’s model and its handling fee for recycling – is estimated to be zero. This is because the small fee is offset through the application of unredeemed deposits and sale of material.

This ‘economic impact’ is made up of two figures: the amount of economic activity generated and the value of people’s time to recycle taken over a 20 year period. Most of this figure is private sector investment in new recycling depots and processing equipment, but the remainder is literally your time to wash bottles and recycle with a monetary value placed against them. All studies show that consumers are ‘willing’ to support this activity.

Take housing developments as a comparison. If it “cost” $1.7 billion it would be seen as positive economic activity, creating jobs and investment; so it is with the national Cash for Containers proposal.

Myth #9: Cash for Containers will see the cost of living rise for families

Coke says“Modeling has shown that a CDS is likely to raise the cost of an average household grocery basket by 1.35% - double government estimates of the inflationary impact of Australia’s carbon price on grocery bills. It is therefore a significant – and permanent – increase in the cost of necessities, coming at a time when many families cannot afford it.”

RealityThis report by ACIL Tasman economists and commissioned by the AFGC was described by a Senate inquiry as “based on poor data and methodology’. It includes absurd assumptions such as: all product prices would rise by 20 cents (they didn’t in the NT); no consumers would return their used container for the refund; there would be a ‘handling’ fee of up to 10 cents (which would make it higher than the most expensive handling fee in the world). It is completely flawed and represents a gross manifestation of the political and public fear campaign Coca Cola and its allies are attempting to wage.

Myth #10: The community doesn’t really want Cash for Containers

Coke says“Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed initially supported container deposits, which fell to 75% (still strong) when made aware of cost impacts. However, when offered the alternative of being able to recycle “out and about”, those surveyed eagerly embraced it. Sixty-eight percent supported "out and about" recycling systems, while 26% still preferred a CDS (6% remained unsure).”

Reality: Coca-Cola’s community ‘survey’ was an example of push polling, where it presented respondents with a series of negative images and associations of a CDS scheme and tried to represent their findings as facts. Newspoll surveys for the Boomerang Alliance consistently shows over 80% support for a national CDS scheme and in South Australia, where the community have day-to-day experience of the scheme over 30 years - the support is 98% for its existing deposit / refund.

Myth #11: Coca-Cola has an alternative

Coke says: The National Bin Network (NBN) we propose is a comprehensive industry plan to reduce litter and increase recycling.  It includes the installation of recycling bins in major venues throughout Australia,”

Reality: Coke’s so-called ‘alternative’ to a Cash for Containers scheme to is to install more bins (LOTS of bins) with the aim of making it easier for people to recycle their rubbish. The trouble is, this National Bin Network would only be installed in places like shopping centres and main streets, but not on beaches, parks and other places where plastic pollution is having deadly effects on marine life. It doesn’t take an expert to see that it doesn’t make much sense.

If Coke wants to pay for more bins, that’s great. They should also offer to pay for the emptying of these bins which is actually much more costly and is paid for by us, the taxpayers, through local councils. And they should drop their opposition to Cash for Containers.

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