The ABC’s Four Corners program that aired on 7 August lifted the lid on some of Australia’s dirty secrets. While focusing generally on the waste industry and illegal dumping, the program revealed some disturbing information on recycling. It indicated that only 50% of what goes into our recycling bins gets recycled. The rest ends up and landfill.

It’s enough to stoke a cynical view that recycling isn’t worth the extra effort, but before you start tossing everything in the red top bin, here are a few reasons to keep up the recycling habit.

  1. Even if 50% of waste is going to landfill, the rest is getting recycled. That’s a lot of material.
  2. Much of the recyclable material going to landfill is glass. It doesn’t have a big environmental impact when dumped appropriately and could eventually be recovered for recycling if glass prices recover.
  3. Many items need to be recycled because they contain hazardous materials that can cause significant environmental damage. These include fluorescent lighting, computers, phones, batteries and other electronic waste. While recycling these items takes a bit more effort than dropping them in your home recycling bin, there are plenty of places you can take a wide variety of different types of waste for recycling. You can find out where at
  4. The Four Corners program should lead to tighter rules and better regulation of the waste industry, including a focus on how to make recycling work better. A ban on interstate transport of waste for landfill, and greater uniformity in rules between states would be a good start. For example, all states should follow the lead of South Australia and ban the dumping of mercury-containing fluorescent lighting, and many other wastes, in landfill.
  5. While Four Corners uncovered corruption and illegal dumping within the waste and recycling industry, a lot of good people, driven by a genuine desire to reduce harm to the environment, are working to increase the range of items that can be recycled.

There are no grounds for complacency, however. The problems in the waste industry are just another example (along with climate change) of how market-based systems are good at internalising profits and externalising costs. The ability of companies to rent a warehouse or vacant land, fill it up with hazardous waste, hide a tidy profit, and then collapse into bankruptcy is one problem. The directors of such companies need to be more accountable for their actions and to face more severe penalties if the industry is to be cleaned up.

But we also need to work harder on creating the circular economy, using regulation where necessary to align economic drivers with environmental requirements. That may not be popular with champions of the free market, but when markets fail, governments need to be prepared to step in and regulate.

Image: Miran Rijavec via flickr (Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)