Norway is often billed as a guiding light in the international war on plastic waste.
With their container deposit scheme frequently reported as ‘the best in the world’, thanks to an often quoted 97 per cent recycling rate (based on 598, 355, 791 bottles and containers recycled in 2016*) the international community is training their focus on the Scandinavian nation in an attempt to replicate this success.
And this effort has never been more significant than in the wake of China’s decision to quit importing 24 categories of recyclable materials, including many common plastics used in consumer goods.
Now while waste stockpiles continue to rise in Australia as state and federal bodies struggle to cooperate and coordinate an appropriate recycling infrastructure, Norway’s system appears to run like clockwork.
So what can we learn from the land of the midnight sun and the birthplace of TOMRA reverse vending technology?
Atle Hamar, State Secretary for the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, is immensely proud of the country's soaring container deposit scheme success rate - and can’t fathom why Victoria and Tasmania continue to dither and dodge the system.
‘It's is so simple and very effective while being good for the environment, therefore good for the economy,’ he says, ‘I fail to see why any governing body would refuse to accept such measures. It makes no sense to me.’
Speaking to Boomerang Alliance from Oslo, Mr Hamar charts the implementation of the scheme in the early Seventies along with the introduction of a state environment tax and the overwhelming national support.
Delivering expert counsel and advice to Victoria and Tasmania regarding their failure to implement a container deposit scheme, he implores the two recalcitrant states to 'reconsider their position', and encourages supporters to never give up the fight.
Mr Hamar also goes on to explain the overwhelming merits behind international waste exchange in Europe and the recent evolve of plastic packaging in his country.
And the Scandinavian statesman casts his opinion on the Coles plastic bag fiasco – and offers his take if a similar debacle occurred in Norway.
When it comes to plastic beverage container recycling, Norway leads the international charge with an often quoted, '97 per cent recycling rate'. Now let me just ask firstly, is that an embellished figure at all?
It’s actually 93 per cent on big bottles and 82 per cent on half litre so it’s a quite good return. Especially when you compare to the international average.
A figure to be extremely proud of…
Recycling has been tradition for many many years in Norway. We have an environmental tax on all beverage packaging and it’s a system that works very well and we are very proud of it.
It surely helps too that Norway is the birthplace of Tomra reverse vending technology. You are literally the home of the container deposit scheme.
Well yes, we are and even prouder that this Norwegian technology has been exported to a lot of other countries all over the world including Australia, where consumers are charged a deposit that they get back when they return the bottle. It’s a good economy.
Explain the environment tax to the uninitiated.
Companies, producers are charged a tax [set at NOK 5.79 (AUD .98) for cans and NOK 3.50 (AUD .59) for bottles] to pay for the cost of the collection and recycling of their packaging. It is very simple. The higher rate of recycled containers and bottles, the less tax paid. It starts at 25 per cent and moving up to 95 per cent, where no tax is paid at all.
But this is separate from the deposit scheme?
They work side by side for the same goal, better waste solutions, but this directly affects the consumer who pays a deposit included in the price of the product. When you recycle the container, you get it back, it's that simple. Bring the bottles with you when you go shopping and drop them into the machine where you receive a ticket. You then cash out when paying for your groceries in the shop. What could be simpler?’ And it's such an easy system, it motivates and excites people to collect empty drinking bottles for recycling.
When was the environment tax introduced in Norway and was it met with resistance?
It was 1972 when the tax was introduced. Was it met with resistance? It was not. Some people think if you put a tax on something, the predicted general consensus is the people and industry won’t like it. But it’s really the opposite when it comes to helping the environment.
Some Australian states (SA, NT, NSW and ACT) have already introduced a container deposit scheme - South Australia's 40 year old container legislation was declared a Heritage Icon by the National Trust in 2018 - while other states (QLD, WA) are in the process of implementing the scheme.
And then we have Victoria and Tasmania who steadfastly refuse to introduce the system as they believe too much of a cost to the consumer and industry. How did the Norwegian government get around such roadblocks?
As a politician, you need to communicate politics. In the Seventies, there was a growing environmental consciousness among the Norwegian population and it became an important topic on the political agenda.
A simple but effective idea was communicated to the people who quickly understood if they paid the deposit when they bought the lemonade or the beer, they got it back when they returned the empty bottles. It was clear and concise.
For consumers and producers, it’s quite an efficient system and state bodies and governments need to be able to communicate that.
Victoria and Tasmania need to reconsider that position and go into this with open eyes and look upon it as a good economy. Good environment means good economy. The Tomra system is so easy and effective; I fail to see the problem.
There should not be any bureaucracy involved. It’s been proven to work and it’s a good idea in accordance with the plastic discussion.
What about dealing with international companies who resist the return and earn scheme? Did Norway face problems?
Not one international company protested the introduction - there was no discussion about it. When these companies go into countries where regulations are as strict as they are in Norway, they must abide by our legislation and system.
This is also good business for Coca Cola and other companies to promote their brand as environmentally aware and conscious. And an opportunity to stimulate the recycling industry and help get rid of the waste in a fit and proper way.
You’ve been so successful with recycling your plastic bottle and container waste, are you taking in waste from other countries?
In Europe, the European Union and the Nordic countries, we have a system where we buy and sell waste for recycling depending on the appropriate technology available. Countries can buy and sell from each other to get the right mix and/or neutralize dangerous waste.
This is how the Europeans and Scandinavians operate and I think there could be a complimentary system in Australia where different states operate the same under the federal control. It would work the same in Australia.
But you need to tell the politicians that this is a good idea, they need to listen to the people.
Because can I add, no one in Norway has ever asked questions about any new initiative seen to benefit the environment, no one. Everyone knows a system that is stimulating change for the environment is the right system and it makes sense.
Which countries are your biggest customers for plastic bottle waste?
A lot of our plastic waste is exported to Sweden and Germany because they have a better recycling industry, they have a better system than Norway.
Even though Norway is the home of Tomra.
Their advances in waste management greatly benefit our waste management. But that is changing here. Several new companies are now building different factories, different plants around the country and they can recycle the plastic into bioethanol which is biofuel. So there is a growing industry in Norway.
Is it fair to say Norwegians are innately, environmentally conscious people?
Norwegians are very good at collecting and delivering their waste in the right way. We have a food waste, plastic waste, paper waste - every citizen has to pay a tax to the municipality to collect the waste. It’s works for all involved and there has never been any opposition. There has been a unified response and that what makes it work.
I think we have a quite good level of environmental consciousness in Norway whether it’s more than Australians or other countries, I cannot say.
I’m interested then how Norway, a country with a huge oil industry manages to balance those interests with
Well traditionally, the oil industry has been a very conflicting industry according to environmental issues but still I believe Norway exploits the oil in a way that is the most efficient, the most environmental way when compared to other countries.
We have low emissions from our oil fields when compared to the international average. And Norwegian oil companies are focused on building wind power systems in the field to deliver renewable energy to also power the platforms.
Can't you just focus on renewable energy completely?
The renewable energy industry is growing rapidly in Norway and yes, while platforms supply power to oil fields, they also supply to the national grid. There are many advances in all aspects of renewable energy currently taking place.
How much of an impact did the whale discovered off the coast of Bergen with plastic bags in it’s stomach have on public consciousness in Norway?
It had a huge impact, it was a huge change maker here when it came to plastic bags. Unfortunately, it was almost necessary to open our eyes. That whale created a lot of engagement with the Norwegian population about plastic bags in particular. It became a symbol - ‘the whale on the strand in Bergen.’ It was very bad for the whale but good for political and public motivation.
You have a price on plastic bags (one NR krone - 16 cents), will you ban them altogether at any point?
We have this price on plastic bags but no, they’re not banned in the country and we are not considering that right now. We are working successfully with industry at the moment, who have agreed on this tax (price) and this has considerably reduced numbers [of plastic bags] in Norway. But this is relatively new introduction, perhaps we will discuss a ban in the future but as of now, it is not necessary as industry is fully cooperating.
Recently, two of our biggest retailers [Coles and Woolworths] ditched free lightweight plastic bags for thicker plastic alternatives at a price of 15 cents. But then Coles decided to give away these thicker bags for free, causing much controversy. What do you make of such a fiasco?
If you introduce such initiatives, you cannot go back on your commitment. That is bad corporate policy
We have many initiatives taken by industry here. Right now, one company here, [fruit producers] Bama have switched from plastic packaging to paper packaging for strawberries and other berries. This was not a governmental decision.
The Norwegian cruise liner, Hurtigruten has just removed plastic cups and plastic products that were used in restaurants, that was a company decision. The bottom line - if you introduce an idea, you have to stick with it!
Would the Norwegian government step in if a company pulled a similar move like Coles?
These companies who have switched from plastic, they will never return to plastic, they will never go back on their word. As an example, this is a political as well as good business decision for Bama, it's good business for them. It's good business being environmental, that’s why we are seeing companies all over Norway focusing on green practices.
But not all companies in Norway are doing this, right?
No, not all but the number is growing.
Will you introduce legislation on plastic packaging?
Right now, we are currently in the process of drafting how we regulate the use of plastic in packaging. Earlier this year, we invited 70 of the biggest manufacturers in Norway to a meeting in April discussing how the industry can contribute their ideas. And this summit was very encouraging and great advances have been made since then.
We want to see industry take the lead by themselves, put this issue on their agenda.
And if they don't meet targets fast enough, then what? Will you step in?
Norwegian industry and Norwegian people are working towards a better future for the environment and preserving the environment. So far, advances indicate waste management is continuing in the right direction.
Should we come to that point, the discussion will be had. For now, Norway is working toward a better future. And no doubt, Australia is doing the same.
*Figures - BBC World News February 2018
Boomerang Alliance proudly works together with Citizen Blue, a container deposit scheme depot located in St Peter's Sydney
Image credit: Europaportalen (Wiki), Supplied, Julian G. Albert (Wiki), Graeme Maclean (Wiki), Shubert Ciencia (Flickr), Munchaka Chasant (Wiki)