Recycling a sustainable growth area
TO understand the growth of the global recycling industry, take your next holiday to a Pacific island, the smaller and more remote the better. Islands such as Niue, Kiribati and Tuvalu are littered with permanent rubbish, in particular plastic and metal, that has nowhere to go.
Car bodies, old boats, even the relics of World War II tanks and guns, sit where they die, slowly rusting. Governments in the region don’t have the capacity to do anything about it.
Until recently it wasn’t economically viable to ship the metals away. The distances involved are enormous, quantities are small, and ferrous metals are all mixed up with non- ferrous metals, making sorting and scrapping costly.
Tahiti alone creates 2500 tonnes of usedcar waste a year. Just three years ago, any shipments of rubbish off the islands were organised by not- for- profits. In 2005 Niue and Tahiti loaded their first shipments of metal to New Zealand for recycling, organised by NGOs. But today the commercial world is getting stuck in of its own accord.
With the price of copper, aluminium and steel skyrocketing, the private sector is scouring the islands for recycling opportunities. At Sims Metal, one of the world’s largest metal recycling companies, Julian Muller, PNG and Pacific manager, is preparing to buy a $ 500,000 portable bailer to ship from island to island. The first commercial shipment from Tuvalu is expected soon.
The metal is to be shipped out of the South Pacific to Australia or New Zealand to be recycled, eventually ending up in China or India. This is just one example of the globalisation of the recycling business, an industry that used to be extremely local and very limited in scope.
Ferrous metal prices are at record highs, which is what is driving the market,’’ says Muller. We’ve been working in PNG for some time, but because transport costs are so high and quantities so small, it wasn’t feasible to work in the rest of the Pacific. Technology has improved — shredding and sorting equipment is more efficient, but really it is demand that is driving the market. The Pacific has been identified as an untapped resource.’’
Even within Australia, metal recycling is booming for a number of reasons: increasing process of raw materials, the increasing cost of landfill, community resistance to new landfill sites, and environmental policies designed to minimise the amount of waste going to landfill.
Demand for metals from China is driving a great deal of the international investment in recycling. In the aluminium industry, for instance, China is active as an end- user and a producer of recycled aluminium. According to Mike Greulich, the head of non- ferrous metals at a privately owned German scrap metal trader Scholtz, recycled aluminium output was 1.6 million megatonnes in 2004, but this is to increase to some 4.5 million megatonnes by 2010.
Production growth in China is mainly based on structural benefits, cheap labour, for instance, as well as more relaxed environmental legislation than in the west, and relatively low energy costs,’’ says Greulich.
At the same time, aluminium recycling in Europe has been driven by technological innovation, with the automobile industry taking the lead with a powerful foundry industry with high human know- how to improve castings quality in short cycles.’’
Investment in recycling is also happening at the product manufacturing stage, with increasing numbers of manufacturers designing products for recyclability at the beginning. The Coca- Cola company has announced it intends to recycle 100 per cent of the aluminium drinks cans it sells in the US, as well as all its PET plastic bottles.
Although the prices of other raw materials haven’t increased as much as metals, plastics and glass recycling is also booming. According to the Australian plastics and chemical industry association ( PACIA), in the decade to 2007 plastics recycling more than doubled, from 7 per cent to 15.9 per cent — this in the face of increasing plastics volume consumption.
Glass recycling too is attracting a significant amount of investment. In 2005, Visy opened Australia’s most technologically advanced glass recycling facility. With a multi- million dollar price tag, the fully automated facility in Laverton near Melbourne can recover in excess of 150,000 tonnes of glass every year — an increase of 50,000 tonnes over its predecessor facility.