HALF a million tonnes of waste packaging, including all cardboard milk cartons, have been excluded from a national audit, making Australia’s recycling performance appear better than it is, new research shows.
A recycling black hole uncovered by the Total Environment Centre suggests the recycling targets of the National Packaging Covenant Council will not be met.
The council, a joint government and industry body that includes large retail and packaging companies such as Coles, Woolworths, Coca-Cola and Fosters, said it still believed its target of 65 per cent of all packaging recycled by 2010 was within reach.
Its latest audit, which will be presented to federal and state environment ministers at a recycling meeting on Friday, did not include milk or fruit juice cartons.
An estimated 125,000 tonnes of plastic and cardboard delivery packaging was also missing from the audit, along with 96,000 tonnes of imported glass packaging and 32,000 tonnes of imported plastic packaging, the Total Environment Centre said.
It said the packaging council’s figures exaggerated Australia’s recycling effort. Rising consumption meant more than 200,000 tonnes of extra glass, plastic and steel packaging were also excluded from the council’s figures.
"We estimate the recycling rate at under 50 per cent, way off the 2010 target of 65 per cent and [the amount of] packaging to landfill is increasing," said the centre’s director, Jeff Angel.
The chair of the packaging council, Dick Gross, said it was inevitable there would be slight inaccuracies because the data was being constantly reassessed. But the overall trend was toward higher recycling rates.
"I believe the covenant has been part of an important culture change – yes, our data is wrong from time to time but all data is wrong from time to time," Mr Gross said.
"I do take issue with the idea that we have been misleading because we have been transparent at all times as the numbers have changed up and down."
He said that 56 per cent of all packaging was being recycled, up from 40 per cent in 2003.
But while more goods were being recycled, even more products were being consumed, according to the figures that will be presented to ministers at Friday’s annual meeting of the Environmental Protection and Heritage Council. Most recycling improvements have been the result of work done by councils at kerbside collection, the national figures show.
The Local Government Association of NSW believes the packaging council is trying to take credit for council work.
"We’ve never supported the covenant because we think the covenant is a bit of a joke," said the president of the Local Government Association of NSW, Genia McCaffery. "It’s a way for companies to delay the introduction of product stewardship, where the people who produce the waste are responsible for it."
Friday’s meeting will assess the packaging council’s performance and consider product stewardship, said a spokesman for the Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett.