Five golden rules to help solve your recycling dilemmas

Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney

Have you ever found yourself facing your recycling bin, completely befuddled about whether or not you can put a particular item in it? You’re not alone. According to Planet Ark, nearly half of Australians find recycling confusing. The Conversation

Australia’s recycling rules can seem horrendously complicated, but fortunately they are becoming more simple.

In the meantime, here’s a brief guide to some of the golden rules of kerbside recycling, plus what to do with materials that can’t go in your recycling bin.

The Conversation, CC BY-ND

As the first rule above says, most papers, plastics, metals and glasses can be recycled, but there are a few exceptions and rules for special handling. To find out more, click on each material below. This will also tell you how else you can recycle the items that can’t go in your kerbside recycling bin.

Other helpful sources for recycling rules include:

Why do some things need special treatment?

Some items need special handling before they can go in kerbside recycling. These are generally either very small items, or complex/composite items.

Small items, like scraps of paper or foil, steel bottle caps or plastic bottle lids and coffee pods, can cause problems if simply placed in a recycling bin. Because they are small, they can literally fall through the cracks in sorting machines, causing damage to the machines or ending up in landfill.

Combined or composite items are complex items that contain multiple materials, such as newspapers or magazines in plastic wrap, or composite items like Pringles tubes. Automated recycling machines can cope with very small amounts of different materials, such as staples in paper, plastic windows on envelopes, paper labels on glass jars, or slight residues of food on containers. But items with multiple materials can confuse the machines and end up in the wrong category, introducing contamination.

Why is contamination an issue?

Contamination is when things that can’t be recycled through kerbside recycling systems end up in the recycling system.

Contamination can create many problems: recyclable materials may need to be dumped in landfill; the output of recycled materials is less pure; workers at recycling facilities can be put at risk; and in some cases machinery can be damaged. All of these lead to increased costs of recycling that may be passed on to residents.

For example, glass recycling programs are designed only to process glass bottles and jars, which are crushed and then melted down and re-used. Drinking glasses, ceramics, plate glass (window panes) and oven-proof glass melt at higher temperatures than normal glass bottles and jars. When these are incorrectly placed in recycling, this tougher glass can remain solid among the melted glass, leading to impure glass products and damaged machinery.

Better technology is helping to remove contaminants during sorting. But it’s always best to get it right at the source. Planet Ark says that a good recycler’s motto is: “If in doubt, leave it out.”

What about things that can’t be recycled at home?

Just because something can’t be recycled through kerbside collections, that doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled at all.

New channels for recycling more complex items have been pioneered by organisations such as Planet Ark and TerraCycle, as well as by local councils, industry and government under schemes such as the Australian Packaging Covenant and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme.

Most councils have drop-off locations for larger items that can’t go in kerbside bins, such as electronics, batteries, light bulbs, chemicals and hazardous waste, as well as pickups for white goods and mattresses.

Many supermarkets in metro areas have REDcycle bins that accept soft plastics like plastic bags, soft plastic packaging, biscuit packets and trays, dry cleaning bags, and other “scrunchable” plastics.

Industry take-back programs include Fridge Buy Back, TechCollect for electronics, and ReturnMed for unwanted or expired medicines.

Some big companies now have collection points, such as Ikea which take used batteries, light bulbs, mattresses and allen keys, and Aldi which also takes used batteries.

Free Terracycle recycling programs.
Adapted from TerraCycle (

Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and so getting it right is crucial.

Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Recycling can be confusing, but it’s getting simpler

Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney

At first glance, Australians appear to be good recyclers: ABS figures report that in 2012 about 94% of households participated in some way in kerbside recycling. State waste authorities also report a consistent increase in the volume of materials recovered for recycling. The Conversation

However, these figures do not justify complacency. Our total household waste is increasing and our kerbside recycling rate – the amount of materials collected for recycling as a percentage of the total waste generated – is actually relatively low by global standards, and is only growing slowly.

The recycling rate increased from 45% in 2007 to 51% in 2011, just creeping above the average of 50% across comparable countries.

One reason our kerbside recycling rate isn’t higher is because many people find the rules confusing: a Planet Ark survey found that 48% of Aussies struggle to figure out what can and can’t be recycled, and many incorrectly identified materials that could be recycled. Much of this is likely due to the variation in rules in different places, and the extent to which recycling has changed in the 35 years since it began in Australia.

Many people are confused about what can and can’t be recycled.
Adapted from Planet Ark, 7 Secrets of Successful Recyclers

Why is there variation in recycling rules?

Every local council makes its own decisions about what it collects for recycling, based on factors like population density, economics, local infrastructure and facilities, waste contracting services available, and potential end markets.

For example, the volume and value of recyclables collected from smaller or remote populations might be too low to be economic, once the costs of collection and transport are factored in. In other words, one size will not fit all council areas.

The type of facilities available to a council also affects what can be collected. For example, combination products like Tetra Pak juice cartons are made of multiple materials: cardboard, plastic and foil linings. Specialised machinery is needed to separate the product into its component materials before it can be recycled and this may not be available in all areas.

In the past the variation between councils was big, as some got access to facilities and new technologies quicker than others.

The good news is things are getting simpler as councils move towards much greater consistency. Now more than 80% of people can place the same things in their recycling bins, by following a few golden rules.

How has recycling changed over time?

Household kerbside recycling schemes were introduced in the 1980s, initially in Sydney, and then spread to the other major centres. By the early 1990s nearly half of households had kerbside collections, and by 2014 94% of Australians had access to kerbside recycling.

Early recycling collections used council-provided bags and crates, or boxes or other bins that were provided by the householder. But mobile garbage bins, better known as “wheelie bins”, have steadily gained in popularity and are now the major form of recycling bin provided by councils. This shift was in part driven by waste service contractors desiring greater cost-efficiency.

Initially, recycling had to be sorted into paper and plastic/glass. Over the past 15 years many councils have moved towards “comingled” recycling, in which all recyclables are placed in the one bin. For example, in 2006, only 47% of Sydney councils had comingled recycling, while in 2012, 95% of councils across NSW did.

Research suggests, however, that while comingled recycling is more convenient for households, it leads to lower recovery rates and more contamination than separated recycling.

Again, the shift to comingled recycling is partly due to a desire for reduced costs. While sorting was traditionally done by hand, recycling is increasingly sent straight to automated machines in materials-recovery facilities, which use the physical properties of different materials to separate them from each other.

Is recycling enough?

Like most conversations about recycling, so far we have only discussed the “supply” side: how things get recycled. It is also important to recognise the “demand” side: what happens to recycled material.

A strong recycling system requires a closed loop, where there is demand for products made from recycled material. Increased demand supports a more circular economy by providing an incentive for investment in recycling collection schemes and infrastructure.

People who want to be super successful recyclers can increase demand by “buying back” their recycling; looking for products with recycled content, such as toilet paper, wrapping and copy paper, boxes, plastic containers and packaging, as well as bigger items like outdoor furniture and carpet underlay.

Recycling also needs to be considered in its appropriate place in the scheme of things. While it is extremely important to ensure useful materials don’t go to waste in landfill, many might be surprised to know that recycling sits below a number of waste avoidance actions. Recycling and other waste management should be more of a last line of defence.

The ‘waste hierarchy’ prioritises actions by those with the greatest environmental benefit.
UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures, CC BY-SA

Most of us only think about recycling when we’re disposing of something. However it’s much more effective to think about recycling where we’re acquiring it. For most of us, that is in the supermarket when buying groceries.

When considering a product, if we think about the waste that will be produced when we get home, we could choose refuse to purchase products with too much packaging, thus reducing the amount of waste that needs to be recycled. Similarly, we could buy reusable items instead of single-use, disposable items.

New social movements are also trying to encourage people to be even more creative about how they can avoid waste, introducing concepts like “repair” and “re-gifting” back into our consciousness. They are trying to create an extended waste hierarchy with more emphasis on waste avoidance.

An extended waste hierarchy, focusing on waste avoidance.
UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures, CC BY-SA

Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and getting it right is crucial. But it’s also important for recycling to take its place alongside waste-avoidance actions for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.