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Playing catch up in the war on waste

Victoria aims to recycle 80 per cent of all materials by 2030, but statistics shows we are nowhere near that target. Emilie Kirketerp reports

Australia prides itself on its natural beauty and unique environmental and ecological spectacles — but lags far behind Europe when it comes to the basics of building a sustainable country.

Victoria’s waste recovery goal is to recycle 80 per cent of all materials by 2030, but statistics suggest that Victoria is still far from hitting this target. Recent statistics suggest Victoria and Australia are far behind on the recycling rates compared to countries in Europe. A recent report from Recycling Victoria shows that Victoria is diverting 45% of all household waste from landfills, whereas Germany manages to recycle 71.1% of their used materials.

For Dr Rebecca Awdry, founder of GreenQueen, education is the foundation for successful recycling and sustainability commitments in Victoria, which is what she is trying to achieve through her app. 

Growing up in England and later moving to Australia, she found an “enormous difference” between Australian and European habits and knowledge, which needs to be addressed if Victoria wants to hit its targets. 

Dr Awdry believes that there is a fundamental distinction in how Australians and Europeans perceive and understand recycling and sustainability. 

“I have lived in Australia for 10 years but found an enormous difference between European habits and Australian habits,” she said.

“When I've had conversations with people about my start-up, I have very rarely ever had anybody respond and say that people know how to recycle in Australia. But when I've mentioned my start-up in Europe, everyone asks, why would you need that? So, there's a very different culture of education around recycling.” 

Pola Wojciechowska from Germany has lived in Victoria for seven years and also says she finds a big difference in recycling habits between Europe and Australia. 

“In Germany, there are way more ways and opportunities to recycle, even with the different bins, everyone is super aware of where the different waste goes. And in Australia, I don’t see everyone recycling all their waste, and not everything can be recycled in each household bin,” Ms Wojciechowska said. 

Victoria falls way behind Germany in its recycling efforts, says Pola Wojciechowska. (Photo:Emilie Kirketerp)

There is also an education element in Germany where kids learn about rules and ways to recycle in classrooms, which Ms Wojciechowska doesn’t believe exists to the same extent in Victoria.

“This is something you also go over in school and learn about in Germany, and people follow those rules, and people will tell you on the streets if they see you not following the rules,” she said.

Dr Awdry believes some of the challenges that Victoria is facing is a lack of standardisation across all of Victoria in terms of recycling and bin systems, which is causing confusion among residents who are unsure of the rules in their specific areas. 

“The government doesn't have a standardised approach currently. So, every single council has its own rules and they even have their own bins and they're all different colours. The government is standardising bins from 2024, it said, but I think the steps are very small and I'm not sure why we're not moving quicker,” she said. 

The lack of a clear and cohesive recycling system often leads to people either not participating in recycling commitments or accidentally putting items in the wrong bins. This can lead to contamination which can spoil recycled materials, and force them into landfills. The report from Recycling Victoria shows In Victoria, 17 per cent of recycled materials are recorded as contaminated or too small which automatically sends them to landfills.

Ms Wojciechowska has noticed this to be an issue as well, and her perception of the recycling system is a flawed system compared to the German system, where she finds a much higher trust.

“I feel like in Melbourne even if you recycle, at the end of it all, a lot still ends up in landfill,” she said. 

Victoria is recognising this issue and is on track to introduce a consistent household waste and recycling system with the hope that it supports Victorians in better recycling and less contamination among waste and recycling. 

To reduce the amount of waste being managed in Australia, cutting down the use and production of waste is similarly essential. A recent report from Minderoo Foundation found Australia to be the second leading country in the world to generate single-use plastic waste per capita, with the figure at 59 kg of waste for every Australian annually. 

Dr Awdry said another gap between Australian and European recycling was the lack of regulation between businesses producing and disputing waste. Where Europe has strict rules for businesses waste management, Australia does not.

“In Europe, there are requirements for the producers of materials or packaging to have a recycling stream. So, they need to know what's actually going to happen to that waste afterward.

“We don't have those mandates in Australia and that's the whole of Australia, not just Victoria, but there is the option for the State Government to mandate that no new materials can be produced or that only a minimal amount of new materials can be produced,” she said. 

Looking into Germany and the rest of Europe, the rules for businesses handling of waste are more regulated. 

“In Germany, if you don’t recycle you have to pay a fine, and I don’t experience any regulations towards houses or businesses here. When working in Australia, the restaurant where I was a waitress, they didn’t recycle anything except cardboard, they just put everything, food waste, glass, and plastic in the same bin to go to a landfill. That would not happen in Germany,” said Wojciechowska

With the Victorian new recycling scheme predicted to start next year, Dr Awdry is attentive to see how the government manages the transition. 

“From the ground up, there is no standardisation because nothing is mandated. So, I think until the government really drills down on all of those levels, it's almost a lost cause because people are so confused about what to do,” she said. 


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