Advanced plastic recycling: enabling responsible implementation of an emerging Australian industry

How do public narratives shape our understanding of new technologies?
Project duration: February 2021 – June 2023
Portrait of a happy woman working in a recycling factory sorting the garbage and writing on a clipboard - environmental conceptsCredit: iStock/andresr

The Challenge

Australians produce millions of tonnes of mixed plastic waste every year. While we can recover some of this waste using traditional mechanical recycling, recent export bans have created a problem of volume.

Up until recently, Australia exported much of its mixed plastic waste overseas. However, recent international bans on mixed plastic exports means that now, this waste must be managed locally.

Currently, Australia recovers only 11.5 per cent in total of its plastic waste consumption. Research estimates that some 1.6 million tonnes of plastics will need to be recovered by 2030 if Australia is to meet its target under the National Waste Policy Action Plan of 80 per cent recovery.

Advanced recycling of plastics is an innovative technology that may enable Australia to reach this target. It could allow us to recover mixed, multi-layered, flexible and contaminated plastics that often make their way into landfill. Having already been deployed overseas, advanced recycling presents an attractive opportunity for Australia.

However, social acceptance is key for new technologies like advanced recycling that are yet to reach scale and become mainstream.

Our Response

Researchers from CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform and Ending Plastic Waste Mission are working to develop and pilot a process to identify early and emerging public concerns, expectations, and perceptions relating to advanced recycling technology. 

Our researchers will combine existing social licence frameworks with another theoretical approach – strategic niche management. Strategic niche management is a relatively new approach that is used to help transition new technologies from fringe to mainstream.

By understanding what is being said about this technology, and by whom, researchers will be able to examine how emerging narratives begin to shape public attitudes and perceptions.

The overarching goal is that industry and government will be equipped to anticipate what changes will be needed to make advanced recycling technology socially acceptable. It is by gathering our findings and presenting them to industry and government players that we will be able to identify some possible early solutions. For example, there could be modifications to the development and deployment of the technology to address community concerns, or counter narratives developed to address any misinformation. Ultimately, the aim is that our research will contribute to the responsible development and implementation of advanced recycling of plastic. 

Impact

Identifying enablers and barriers faced by industry and government when developing new technologies, working with community concerns, and implementing early solutions will help support the responsible development of this technology. In addition, understanding the roles of intermediaries and other key stakeholders in these processes will further help industry and government in scaling up a niche industry such as advanced recycling of plastics in Australia.

Doing so will better equip industry and governments to anticipate and proactively address emergent social acceptability issues for new technologies that are yet to become mainstream.

Team

CSIRO: Andrea Walton (Project Lead), Sarah King, Rod McCrea and Andrew Terhorst

Find out more about advanced recycling:

CSIRO: Advanced recycling turning plastic waste into resources

CSIROScope: Advanced recycling: turning plastic waste into resources

References

CSIRO: Ending Plastic Waste Mission: https://my.csiro.au/OrgInfo/Strategies-Planning-Reporting/Our-strategy/Challenges-and-missions/Launched-Missions/Ending-Plastic-Waste

CSIROScope: On a mission to end plastic waste: https://blog.csiro.au/ending-plastic-waste-mission/

CSIRO: Public perceptions of responsible innovation project: https://research.csiro.au/ri/public-perceptions-of-responsible-innovation/

King, S., Hutchinson, S.A., and Boxall, N.J. (2021). Advanced recycling technologies to address Australia’s plastic waste. CSIRO, Australia. https://www.csiro.au/-/media/News-releases/2021/Advanced-recycling-report/21-00312_REPORT_AdvancedRecycling_WEB.pdf