Back in the 90s, every night before sleeping I had one thing to look forward to: the goat milk, freshly delivered in a glass bottle in the next morning. The empty bottle got taken away at the same time.
The milkman slowly phased out and Mum started to buy milk packaged in 250ml carton. I drank a lot of them. No guilt until today: the carton, the straw attached, the plastic layer that wrapped up the straw – everything could still exist somewhere in the world.
Australia produces 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, equating to 100 kg per person. Only 13% of plastic is recovered, 84% is sent to landfill. (National Plastics Plan 2021)
Can we summon the milkman to help tackle the waste crisis? We should, not only for milk, but everything that requires single-use plastic packaging. Here's why:
1. A refill model will help solve the problem within the recycling industry.
Before the waste import ban, Australia exported about 4.5m tonnes of waste to Asia each year (The Guardian).
Since then the Australian government has announced to spend $190m on new recycling infrastructure, forming a $600m Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF) with the state and territory governments and industry investments.
Ambitious goals from the government include having 70% of plastic packaging goes on to be recycled or composted, and phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, by 2025, 4 years from now.
But all is not that simple, and therefore, the progress is slow.
It took 3 years for the government to announce the funds, since China announced the waste import ban in 2018. It'll take some time for the funds to hit the ground working. Let's do the math: the $190m funding is said to divert 10,000 tonnes of waste – that's really just 0.22% of the yearly exported wastes.
And don't forget every minute we're still generating wastes.
So ultimately, it’s all about using less, reusing and refilling because it's a solution that we can already do at an individual level, but at a mass scale. The less we throw into the recycling, the less it costs to recover the wastes. If we could do it at scale, hopefully it will make it much easier to achieve the ambitious goals by 2025.
2. A refill model requires only minimal energy.
Recycling saves energy compared to using raw resources. But don't forget the process of transporting, sorting, heating, cooling, processing and manufacturing recycled products also consumes energy.
Plus, not all products can be made from 100% recycled materials. Plastic is also not infinitely recyclable, and will eventually become wastes that nobody wants.
In other words, recycling is a great solution but should be our last option.
When possible, reuse and refill. According to the world's leading circular economy think tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a refill model could save 80-85% carbon emissions created by the single-use model.
Instead of going through all the fancy chemical reformation, we really just need to make packaging reusable, give it a good quick clean, and it's ready to go again. No bin required.
The modern milkman could bring a significant impact.
Based on the circular economy framework, we think the ideal version of the modern milkman should be:
- Design and manufacture reusable packaging using recycled material that can also be recycled infinitely.
- Produced locally.
- Operate and deliver locally and minimise delivery packaging.
- Products being used locally.
- Packaging returned to the milkman, cleaned with minimum water and energy usage.
- Back in the system again!
Just like the recycling industry, anything at scale takes time. Essentially, the problem we’re trying to solve is deeply rooted in our economic system, supply chain and our behaviours.
We know when done right, the modern milkman could bring a significant impact to help transition to a circular economy, along with the recycling industry. What we need to do is continue to build the infrastructure and cultivate conscious user behaviour. That is, the old saying – reduce, reuse, recycle.
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