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As the national science agency, CSIRO is focused on solving the greatest challenges through innovative science and technology. This includes ensuring we have a resilient and valuable environment, are moving towards clean energy and resources, and supporting the growth of future industries around these goals.

Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted and used globally, with only nine per cent recycled (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). This is commercially unsustainable and there are significant detrimental impacts to human health and the environment.

A 'circular economy' model, which employs not only waste management, but reuse, recycling and responsible manufacture could support the development of new industries and jobs, reducing emissions and increasing efficient use of natural resources (including energy, water and materials).

One of CSIRO's key areas of focus is world-leading, award-winning research into marine debris in Australia and beyond, on land and at sea, to help protect ecosystems and wildlife.

More information on marine debris research

Another is our research into more sustainable options for products that often end up in landfill, like research into recovery of metals and materials, development of new battery materials, and support for the circular economy around battery reuse and recycling.

More information on battery materials research

We've also applied digital technology to the challenge, recently spinning-out the ASPIRE waste management online marketplace from our research. ASPIRE is an online marketplace that intelligently matches businesses with potential remanufacturers, purchasers or recyclers to find new purposes for waste materials working towards the circular economy for Australia.

More information on ASPIRE waste management

Through partnerships with industry, universities and government, CSIRO will continue to work on solutions to our national waste challenge.

The circular economy

Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted and used globally, with only 9 per cent recycled (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). While this is unsustainable, the nature of the mainstream 'make-take-dispose' consumer model also has significant detrimental impacts on human health, climate change and the environment.

A 'circular economy' has been identified as a major (up to $4.5 trillion: World Business Council for Sustainable Development) commercial opportunity and could support the development of new industries and jobs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efficient use of natural resources (including energy, water and materials).

By maximising resource utility and incorporating the concept of circularity during production and consumption (i.e. not just focused on waste management), the circular economy boosts entire economies. For Australia, where currently the value of its natural resources lies only in the raw, unprocessed state, a circular economy is critical in ensuring future prosperity and economic security.

We have developed a roadmap to help Australia recycle and reduce materials such as plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

More information on a circular economy roadmap for plastics, tyres, glass and paper in Australia

CSIRO expertise

CSIRO is the only organisation in Australia with the required cross-disciplinary capabilities to address the gaps in Australia's circular economy. CSIRO scientists have world-class expertise in areas such as digital technologies, mining and processing, manufacturing, materials, renewable energy, environment, techno-economic modelling, and socioeconomics.

Plastic recycling

CSIRO published the report The Recycled Plastics Market: Global Analysis and Trends in 2017 which reviews and analyses the recycling industry in Australia and internationally. It provides a strong case for the development of innovative technologies that will help to improve the management and processing of plastic waste and improve global environmental outcomes.

Report recommendations:

  • The research suggests that there is strong case for the development of innovative technologies that overcome identified challenges and support continued growth.
  • There are opportunities across the recycling industry, including:
    • increasing the cost effectiveness of waste collection
    • providing more efficient sorting and reducing rates of contamination
    • using low value or under-utilised feedstocks
    • delivering higher quality resins that can compete with virgin materials on price and quality.

Report findings:

  • Scope of study: This industry analysis draws on expert opinion sourced from key stakeholder interviews (n = 10), independent intellectual property (IP) landscape studies and CSIRO-authored and independent market analysis reports into the plastic recycling industry.
  • Goal of study: The goal behind this work was to provide a comprehensive and authoritative analysis on the plastics recycling industry to assist with the future identification of R&D opportunities to overcome market challenges and support growth.
  • Market landscape: Strong growth is predicted for the market over the next decade, to deliver a total value of $66.9 billion by 2025. Strong growth is also predicted across all application areas, resin types and global regions.
  • The key economic factor for the industry is the cost and quality competitiveness of recycled resins compared with virgin materials. This is often tied to oil and plastic commodity prices, but can be offset by technologies that maximise the volume, usability, purity and value of waste collected, or redirection of material to other streams such as energy from waste.
  • A large driver of growth for the industry stems from growing public interest in reducing the environmental footprint of plastic products. Large multinationals are responding by setting ambitious sustainability targets, adopting more circular approaches and integrating recycled plastics into their products.
  • The largest technological gaps include:
    • prohibitive cost of collection for some waste streams (e.g. remote regions)sorting of waste is laborious and costly
    • contamination of waste streams
    • much plastic waste is under-utilised due to low value, issues with sorting/contamination or being overlooked
    • recycled resins need to compete with virgin materials on price and quality
  • Results from our stakeholder interviews indicated that an increasing consumer focus on environmental issues and sustainability has helped to drive the market. This has translated into both a shift in preference towards global brand owners with sustainable processes, as well as political action from government to introduce legislation and policies that support plastic recycling measures.

In another plastics project, Australia and India are working together to achieve a zero plastic waste economy. We have been appointed to lead the research that will address this huge challenge.

More information on Reducing plastic waste in India and Australia

ASPIRE resource marketplace

CSIRO technology and innovation is behind ASPIRE - an online marketplace which intelligently matches businesses with potential remanufacturer, purchasers or recyclers of waste resources.

  • ASPIRE is an Australian example of industrial symbiosis where a digital tool supports a social business network, deployed across a region.
  • It goes one step further than a passive waste exchange by actively suggesting business to business collaborations.
  • ASPIRE has been developed in response to manufacturing companies talking to their local councils about waste disposal costs.
  • ASPIRE reduces waste costs, diverts waste, creates new business connections and supports sustainable business operations.

More information on ASPIRE

Lithium battery recycling

CSIRO researchers are working with industry to develop processes that can support the transition to domestic recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

CSIRO published the report Lithium battery recycling in Australia in April 2018 which says that Australia could become a world leader in the re-use and recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

Key findings:

  • Only 2-3 per cent of lithium batteries are currently recycled, and the rest sent to landfill.
  • Used batteries can be used for components, or given a second life in a different application (e.g. an electric vehicle battery may go on to power a home).
  • Low battery recycling rates can be overcome through better understanding of the importance of recycling, improved collection processes, and by implementing ways to efficiently recycle materials.
  • An effective recycling industry could also stabilise global lithium supplies to meet consumer demand.

More information on Battery recycling

Ocean plastic pollution

CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere conducts research to further our understanding, management and protection of coastal and marine ecosystems, whilst using scientific knowledge to empower community and governments to reduce litter entering our oceans.

Key messages:

  • Marine debris is a globally recognised environmental issue of increasing concern.
  • Marine debris comes from both land and sea-based sources and can travel immense distances.
  • Marine debris can pose a navigation hazard, smother coral reefs, transport invasive species and negatively affect tourism.
  • CSIRO has completed a survey of sites approximately every 100 km along the Australian coastline. Parts of this research engaged with thousands of students, teachers and Shell employees and has reached more than one million Australians, helping to educate them about, and increase their understanding of, the problems of marine debris.
  • CSIRO has developed an online national marine debris database where you can contribute data you collect about litter at your local beach.

What has our research found:

  • We found that within Australia, approximately three-quarters of the rubbish along the coast is plastic.
  • Most is from Australian sources, not from overseas, with debris concentrated near urban centres.
  • The density of plastic ranges from a few thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometre to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.
  • As the quantity of debris increases in the marine environment, so does the likelihood of impacts from debris to marine animals.
  • Globally, approximately one third of marine turtles have likely ingested debris, and this has increased since plastic production began in the 1950s.
  • 43 per cent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut.
  • CSIRO predicts that plastics ingestion in seabirds may reach 95 per cent of all species by 2050.
  • Seabirds, turtles, whales, dolphins, dugongs, fish, crabs and crocodiles and numerous other species are killed and maimed through entanglement.

Global plastic losses project:

  • We are using field sampling and mathematical modelling to document the distribution o plastic in the ocean, on the coast and in the nearshore environment generated by 6-8 major urban centres and surrounding areas that have been identified as having significant waste mismanagement or losses into the marine environment.
  • CSIRO is collaborating with partner organisations in China, South Africa, South Korea, Peru, and Vietnam on this project.
  • More information at Global Plastic Losses

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