Who would have thought a show about garbage could be so compelling?
The success of last year’s sleeper hit War on Waste was a happy surprise to its presenter, Craig Reucassel, and the team behind the ABC TV show – not least because of how responsive audiences were to many of its suggestions. Sales of reusable coffee cups shot up, worm farm suppliers struggled to keep up with demand and the #BantheBag campaign helped to spur supermarkets to get rid of single-use plastic bags.
This week the show returns, with three episodes focused on plastics, food waste and e-waste. And in true dramatic form, the tension is even higher. “One of the things that changed the dynamics of doing the second series was the China recycling crisis,” says Reucassel, “and this question about whether or not you should bother recycling so we wanted to engage with that.”
The show will turn its Klieg lights on the pollution of plastic straws. Reucassel has joined forces with 10-year-old Straws No More campaigner Molly Steer, who is pushing for all schools to get rid of plastic straws. “She’s already done so much and we are hoping to help her out a little bit and get a bit more attention on that issue.”
The national discussion around this issue is already having an effect – McDonalds, Hungry Jacks and Starbucks have all promised to phase out plastic straws. Yet Reucassel says this is an example of where government could provide guidance and leadership on costs. Paper straws are still markedly more expensive than the plastic ones, but, as he points out: “The cost [of plastic] doesn’t take into consideration the cost of the waste.”
Part of the success of the show is down to the loyalty of its youngest viewers. Reucassel is often told by parents that their kids nag them to get involved in the various initiatives. This type of pester power is a good thing: “The countries around the world where genuine recycling works better are countries where there is a universal standard, where it’s taught in school and the kids and the adults work together on it, and that’s something that is probably a bit lacking in Australia,” he says. “It’s great that we have a little army of people out there hassling their parents.”
Another area where Reucassel is calling for more leadership is on the issue of recycling labelling. The show takes a look at Planet Ark’s Australasian recycling labelling scheme that aims to take the guesswork out of recycling mixed plastics. At the moment it’s not compulsory. “So some people will do it, some people won’t, there will still be a bit of confusion,” he says. “There’s a bit to iron out of it but it would be a big step in the right direction if we actually know what we should and shouldn’t recycle.”
Although it has been criticised and there’s some way to go, Reucassel says the recent resolution of environment ministers to have all Australian packaging reused, composted or recycled by 2025 was progress. “I actually think it’s one of the upsides of the China recycling crisis – governments have been made to talk about a circular economy and [about] achieving it. So from the scare comes a step forward.”
Around the time of this interview, there have been reports of aggression by those pushing back against the plastic bag ban. Reucassel himself sees a mix of reactions but he says most people are pro-recycling. And while some may complain about the cost of having to buy plastic bags, he points to the example of Ireland, where the introduction of a plastic bag cost in 2002 resulted in a decline in plastic bags.
One of the next challenges for the recycling industry is highlighted in the show, namely the disposal of polystyrene. While it can be recycled through some councils, many don’t accept it and the material disintegrates wildly, turning up in waterways. Reucassel was shocked by how much polystyrene was out there when he went along with community groups to clean up the Yarra river. “It’s one of those products we need to move away from. There’s no effective recycling stream or collection stream out there so it tends to end up in waste.”
After working in this area for the last few years, the scale of waste and the lack of a solution still disturbs Reucassel. The amount of food waste that is being buried in landfill also remains worrying. “It’s kind of worse than burying plastic because it multiplies the effect,” he explains. “[Burying it] turns it into a lot more greenhouse gasses that wouldn’t be there otherwise – it’s ridiculous.”
Yet he remains optimistic. “[Working on the show] you hear about new people trying to find new technological solutions and you bump into some councils that are doing this amazing stuff, so yes I’m definitely hopeful. There is an awareness out there, not because of our show, just everywhere about oceans and plastic waste – and I think hopefully we’ll get some change.”