Recycling: Are you doing it wrong?

Although you have the best intentions to reduce, reuse and recycle, the war on waste requires constant and concerted effort. We've debunked some recycling myths to make it easy for you to get recycling right.

Newspapers in Australia have been recycled since the '40s, when they were collected from homes by horse and cart. Since then, recycling has become a more sophisticated process, with many materials now accepted in our kerbside recycling collections.

With more items ending up in recycling bins, it's difficult to keep track of what can and can't be recycled. Ryan Collins, the recycling programmes manager at Planet Ark, has broken down the process for us.

What happens to our recycling after it's been collected?

"Once it's been collected, it gets taken to a materials recovery facility. It gets sorted in various ways through a mixture of machinery and technology, and manual workers take out some of the contamination that might appear in your bins," Ryan says. "Once those materials are separated - like hard plastics, bottles and aluminium cans - they get sent off to various facilities that actually process those materials."

Which items do we commonly think can be recycled, but can’t?

  • Dirty pizza boxes - the oil and food will contaminate the cardboard, which degrades the end product
  • Pringle Chips containers - these are made of multiple materials and can’t be separated in the recycling process
  • Plastic bags and soft plastics - putting a plastic bag or soft plastic wrap (like cling film) in the recycling can wreak havoc with the machinery. This includes any recyclables placed inside plastic bags
  • Foil wrappers - the type of wrappers you get on muesli and chocolate bars cannot be recycled
  • Coffee cups - most councils won't recycle coffee cups because their waterproof lining can contaminate paper and cardboard items. It's reported that one billion cups will end up in landfill this year
  • Polystyrene - this material won't be accepted by your council recycling service. If you have a large quantity, arrange for a special collection

What are some surprising items that can go into the recycling bin?

  • Aerosol cans - provided they're empty
  • Aluminium foil - this can be recycled if it’s scrunched up to the size of a golf ball, so the machine identifies it as an aluminium can
  • Bathroom products - hard plastic bottles like shampoo and conditioner bottles
  • Coffee pods - these won't be accepted in your kerbside bin, but certain brands can be recycled by the manufacturer. Nespresso can provide a pre-paid Australia Post satchel you can fill with used capsules and post back to Nespresso for recycling
  • Straws - although they wreak havoc on the environment if not disposed of correctly, plastic drinking straws can be included in your recycling

Recycling hacks to use at home

  • Remove lids - before recycling plastic and glass bottles and jars, remove their lids
  • Collect your steel bottle tops - these can be processed if you collect them into an empty steel can (like a tin of tomatoes) and squeeze the sides together so they don't fall out. They'll then be treated as steel cans by recycling centres
  • Give your Easter eggs a new life - collect your aluminium foil wrappers together and scrunch them into a golf-sized ball. If they're recycled as flat sheets of aluminium foil, the machine will think they're paper and contaminate the load
  • Use grey water to rinse your recyclables - Give the items a quick rinse in used washing up water, so you’re not using extra water to clean them. As long as there aren’t any chunks of food remaining, it’ll all get burnt up in the recycling process

How can consumers identify recyclable items?

There is often confusion between the symbol used to indicate that an item is recyclable and the symbol to identify the type of plastic from which an item is made.

The 'chasing arrows' below do not mean that a product is recyclable and are instead a plastic code to know which plastics are recyclable. Plastics 1 - 5 can be widely recycled, but you'll need to check whether your local council will accept plastics labelled 6 and 7.

"Planet Ark is working on the Australasian Recycling Label to make it easier for consumers to understand recycling," Ryan tells me. "It’s a certified symbol products can use to tell customers they're either recyclable in their kerbside collection or to check with their local council."

A number of companies have already come on board, including Officeworks, Woolworths, Blackmores Australia Post, T2 and Plantic.

How does Australia compare to the rest of the world when it comes to recycling?

"We do OK, but we’re an affluent nation and there are definitely countries managing their waste and recycling better than us," says Ryan. "We’re middle-of-the-road when it comes to recycling."

Germany, Austria and South Korea have the best recycling rates in the world, according to Eunomia, and are the countries Australia needs to look up to. Australia places 21st globally, with a reported recycling rate of 41.6%, dragging behind countries like Slovenia, Italy and Poland.

Use our tips to become more mindful of what you're putting in the recycling bin and make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of packaging you use, and help Australia push forward to become a world leader in recycling. It's always worth checking with your local council to see what can and can't be recycled, as it does vary considerably from place to place.

Planet Ark has created the War on Waste Toolkit for Business for improving waste management at work - find out how your workplace can reduce waste, save money and improve staff morale.

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