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Transitional or Solution?

Danny Ruspandini - Impact Labs Australia
Danny R.

The Return and Earn scheme in NSW recently hit a very big milestone - 7 billion containers have been returned since the scheme started in 2017.

I had a read through the FAQs on the Return and Earn website to see if it had any info on what happens to the bottles after they’re returned. There was one answer:

“...(the bottles) are returned to a Sydney recycling facility for processing and on-sale to other businesses to be re-used. Containers collected in regional areas are sent to regional recycling facilities to be processed and then on-sold for reuse.”

Which left me a little unsatisfied, so I dug just a bit further (on Google) and found this video.

If you don’t watch it, it shows a staggering amount of bottles being processed at the dedicated facility in Sydney, and also shows the clever process of breaking the plastic down into reusable form, which they say on the video usually burns tonnes more energy the first time it’s made from fossil fuels, but uses significantly less energy now that it’s being repurposed - which is brilliant.

But then... it shows the plastic being turned into more plastic bottles to be refilled again.

The guy wraps up at the end of the video by saying “this is a genuine solution to our waste crisis - this is closing the loop, this is the circular economy in action”.

I totally applaud this scheme - but I think the wrap up at the end is misleading.

For one, “closing the loop” assumes that every recycled bottle that comes out of that facility goes straight back in for recycling again, and continues to do that forever without a single bottle ever falling out of the loop, which seems like a stretch.

The program is amazing, commendable, and was needed in NSW for a long time. But it is, as mentioned yesterday, an awesome transitional technology.

We need to be relying on plastic less, as well as the energy and resources required to repurpose it - so a new innovation needs to come along and replace it. One will. The Return and Earn is not The Solution™ but it is a massive step towards that solution. That’s 7 billion less bottles that R&E says, “are most commonly found as litter in our streets, beaches, waterways and parks across NSW”.

I don’t usually nit-pick like this, but on this occasion (and possibly more to come) being clear on the distinction between a solution and a transitional step is where we avoid resting on our laurels and assuming a problem has been solved.

R&E is a significant step 👏 but while this 👇 is still happening, I don't think we can call it the full solution yet.

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