Re-thinking recycling

The road construction industry has long played its part to investigate the use of recycled products in projects. Infrastructure Victoria’s recommendations for a $1 billion overhaul of the waste sector in the state are hoped to progress this work further, while creating 5000 jobs and increasing regional recycling capabilities.

One of the most recent trends emerging in the road construction industry is the use of recycled plastic in roads.

Many trials and demonstrations have been performed across the country in the past couple of years, in attempts to determine if roads are a viable option to help reduce Australian waste plastic levels.

This year the City of Melbourne is trialling an asphalt mix using 50 per cent recycled plastic and other recycled materials on five of its roads. This is hoped to allow the council to assess whether it can use more recycled materials when resurfacing roads.

Energy Australia estimates more than 3.5 million tonnes of plastic were consumed in Australia in 2016-17 with less than 10 per cent recycled.

While the viability of using recycled plastics in roads has not yet been specified by road agencies, the industry is exploring innovative options that may work to both reduce waste and enhance road quality.

Plastics are not the only waste stream being given a second life in road construction, glass and rubber are also popular waste materials commonly used. Even materials as unique as printer toner and coffee granules have been used in some forms of construction.

In 2019, the Victorian Government released its Sustainable Procurement Framework. This framework covered social and sustainable objectives for government projects across Victoria. It requires projects over $50 million dollars in value to include targets and contract requirements that pursue social and sustainable procurement objectives.

However, some projects face barriers around the procurement of these recycled or sustainable materials, largely due to distance or availability.

This was one of the considerations taken in by Infrastructure Victoria when carrying out research into how best to advise the Victorian Government on its waste infrastructure investment.

In May 2020, the organisation released a report which found Victorian Recycling required a $1 billion investment by 2039 to close the loop on waste.

The advice suggested upgrading and building new processing infrastructure for six priority materials: plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, organics, tyres and e-waste. The organisation suggested this would create 5000 new jobs and high-quality recycled products for use in infrastructure projects and additional industries.

Elissa McNamara, Infrastructure Victoria’s Project Director.

Roads & Infrastructure spoke to Infrastructure Victoria’s Project Director, Elissa McNamara about the strategy to create these facilities, the infrastructure needed to support them and the possible benefits.

“We have recommended six priority materials as we feel this is where the most opportunity for improvement environmentally and economically lies,” Ms. McNamara says.

“Our infrastructure recommendations have focused on recovery and recycling infrastructure that is going to be necessary to process those materials in Victoria either for reuse in Victoria or for sale to international markets.”

The report and advice recommends 87 new or upgraded recycling facilities for Victoria, 52 of which would be regionally located, outside of metropolitan Melbourne.

“The role of transport and the implications for transport was a big part of our consideration in terms of where we think these facilities should be located,” Ms. McNamara says.

“Melbourne produces most of the state’s waste, as we have most of the population. However, from an economic and operational perspective it’s going to make a lot more sense, given how much additional capacity we need, to have facilities located outside of Melbourne in nearby regional areas.”

Ms. McNamara pointed out as an example that for a town like Mildura it would cost a significant amount to truck their waste into Melbourne or areas close to the city. She says having facilities regionally located would allow those areas to process a larger amount of material while managing transport costs.

“This will mean that waste from the regions will not have to be transported too far. It can be recycled into products that can be reused within those regions or, because the products have an increased value, they can be viably transported to other regions for use,” Ms. McNamara says.

Having plants regionally located also has the potential to increase opportunities for local contractors to use recycled products in their works.

“All of the recommendations that we made are either for new or upgraded facilities to boost that good work that the construction industry has been doing,” Ms. McNamara says.

“We thought, how do we take it from what is essentially a start-up phase and make it business as usual not just in flagship major projects, but how do we make it normal across a much broader range of construction projects in many more regional locations across Victoria?”

She says Infrastructure Victoria know of examples of regions in Victoria where much of their construction and demolition waste is going to landfill, because they don’t have processing facilities locally and it is too expensive to transport it to Melbourne to be crushed and reprocessed.

Giving regional contractors these recycled materials and processing facilities on their doorstep is hoped to simplify the pathway for those materials to be used and recycled in construction.

“I think there is a big role for the construction sector to play by being involved at all stages of the process to use recycled materials from research and development, demonstration projects, updating specifications and standards and so on,” Ms. McNamara says.

She says in Victoria, parts of the Victorian Government are already working on the update of the Victorian recycling infrastructure plan and Sustainability Victoria is also administering a recycling infrastructure development fund.

“We know that the Victorian Government is committed to a range of actions that will support investment in the sector. That includes everything from what the role of particular agencies is and whether or not that is clear, behaviour change programs and also market development to really accelerate the work on enabling increased use of recycled materials in different industries.”

These changes to the waste network, if implemented, could have a positive impact in the construction industry by working to reduce issues such the finite nature of some quarry materials and reducing carbon emissions on projects.

“I think the construction industry is very keen to consolidate their reputation for environmental outcomes and they are also very driven by cost. There is plenty of evidence to show that in many cases the recycled products are actually as high or higher quality at equal or lower cost so there are many potential wins there,” Ms. McNamara says.

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