Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Drink Deposits Recycled

By Ian Lowe

Deposits on recyclable containers are returning despite the packaging industry’s protests.

It’s good to see some political attention being paid to waste. I have been puzzled by the fact that no other state has followed South Australia, which reintroduced beverage container deposits decades ago. The South Australian scheme has resulted in much higher rates of recycling glass bottles and metal cans, as well as significantly less litter. That change has been effected by a very small charge of 10¢ per container.

I recall that drink bottles required a deposit of threepence when I was a child. No bottle was ever on the roadside for any length of time because that amount of money bought a single ice cream cone for the lucky young person who found a discarded container. That means the deposit was the equivalent of a few dollars in 2015 purchasing power!

The NSW government has stated its intention to introduce a bottle deposit scheme, and the ACT and Queensland would like to follow this to reduce complications at the border – it would be silly if there was an incentive to buy drinks in Canberra and return the containers to Queanbeyan, or carry bottles from Tweed Heads to Coolangatta.

But there is still speculation about details of the system, such as whether local councils that collect waste for recycling would be able to recover the deposits. Even at the likely charge of only 10¢, that is still much more than the glass, metal or plastic in a beverage container is worth, so the revenue stream for local authorities would be boosted.

The packaging industry has consistently opposed container deposits, mainly for the crass commercial motive that they sell more of their products if significant numbers are thrown away. So I wonder at their motive when they apparently suggested that the system for collecting containers should be a network of several hundred “reverse vending machines”, which would put the responsibility for returning bottles and cans onto users.

That wouldn’t achieve the recycling levels seen in South Australia. I suspect the packaging industry also believes this.

Containers are only a very small fraction of the urban waste stream – possibly only 5% or less. The main contribution comes from organic material, food waste and garden refuse, accounting for as much as 60% of urban rubbish.

I hear that the cost of landfill in the Sydney area is now so high that waste is being carted to Queensland, where dumping is much cheaper. When the Bligh government was in power it introduced a waste levy to fund environmental programs, but the levy was scrapped by the Newman government.

While the Palaszczuk administration would probably like to reintroduce the levy, both to collect from the interstate traffic and to discourage it, it was elected on a promise of not introducing new taxes or levies so thousands of tonnes of waste will continue to cross the border into Queensland every week for the foreseeable future.

Nature Brings Health

I was in Adelaide recently for an impressive one-day forum to mark the signing of an agreement between two government departments: Health and Ageing had negotiated a memorandum of understanding with Environment, Water and Natural Resources for projects that focus on the health benefits of using the natural environment.

The agreement noted that there is a strong evidence base for the connection between contact with nature and human health. Similarly, there is plenty of evidence that environmental problems affect health and well-being.

A recent report claimed that breathing the urban air in Beijing is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes per day. Our cities aren’t nearly as badly polluted as those in China, but there are obvious benefits for urban residents when they get away to the beaches or the mountains – not just cleaner air, but the refreshment of being in a natural area.

There is now hard evidence that walking in the bush or on the beach does more for your health than exercising in a gym or along suburban footpaths.

So I look forward to other states, especially South Australia with its new agreement, developing programs like Victoria’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People to encourage people to use our wonderful natural areas.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.