How to be a better recycler

recycling tips

I recently took my son on a free, open-to-the-public tour of our local tip and recycling facilities (I know how to show a four-year-old a good time). We sat in the education room watching the recycling trucks dump their loads on the other side of the glass, then the bulldozers move it into the pit for sorting. The kids had a great time pointing out all the contaminants, which included bubble-wrap, plastic bags filled with cans and bottles, palm fronds, a plastic hose, shredded paper, socks, shoes and… a toaster.

Between 20 and 40 per cent of all the waste collected in recycling bins ends up in landfill—not because the council can’t be bothered recycling it, but because people use the kerbside recycling bins incorrectly. And it’s not just because people don’t care, even the most dedicated greenies can cause glitches in the process. I was gutted to learn I’d been making mistakes that made my recycling efforts less effective and I’ll share these with you below.

First, the Golden Rules of kerbside recycling:

  1. Never bag your recyclables (unless your council specifically asks you to). Due to H&S, workers aren’t allowed to open bags of trash so the whole lot will be pulled out and sent to landfill.
  2. Do what your council tells you to do! Every MRF (materials recovery facility) works differently.
  3. Collect all steel and aluminium cans, paper products and rigid plastics such as bottles in your recycling bin.
  4. Don’t put other recyclables such as batteries, soft plastic packaging and appliances into the kerbside bin.
  5. If in doubt throw it out.

How kerbside recycling works

Having seen how our facility sorts the paper, plastic and metal items we collect in our bins, I have a much better understanding of how to ensure everything I collect ends up in the right pile to be sent off to the right place. Here is a brief and very low-tech description of how my MRF sorts out the stuff in our yellow-lidded bin:

  1. Truck dumps it in a pile.
  2. Bulldozer pushes pile into the pit.
  3. Rotating rubber blades take the waste onto a conveyor belt in one mixed “stream”.
  4. Humans pull out obvious contaminants like palm fronds and bagged recycling.
  5. Paper and plastic is identified by up to 60 clever cameras and a puff of air shoots the item off the belt into the right bay.
  6. An electrical charge is wrapped around aluminium so it can be directed off the belt.
  7. Steel is diverted using magnets.
  8. Sorted materials are taken to respective recycling companies.
  9. Anything left gets scooped up and taken to landfill.

 Recyle more… better!

Below are some tips on how to make sure more of your recyclable waste ends up in the right place, but remember, these are based on how my MRF works. Please jump onto your council’s website, search for “recycling” and learn more about your local facility. Better still, find out if you can do a tour!

  • Don’t bag your recyclables! (Did I say that already?)
  • Don’t put plastic packaging into your recycling bin, even if it has a recycling number on it. This plastic (eg pasta packets) can be mistaken for paper and can contaminate the paper stream. Recycle all scrunchable plastic packaging at Coles.
  • Plastic/foam meat trays and plastic disposable plates are light and get mistaken for paper, for this reason, don’t put them in your recycling bin.
  • Do include all rigid plastics, such as bottles and biscuit trays, regardless of the number on them (1 to 7).
  • All cans and aerosols can be recycled, you don’t need to remove the plastic caps.
  • Scrunch or fold aluminium foil, pie cases, foil trays etc so they are too heavy to be blasted with air and can’t be mistaken for paper. Collect aluminium wine-bottle caps and wrap them in a piece of used foil.
  • Collect small pieces of steel such as bottle tops, can and jar lids in a large tin and squeeze the top shut so they all go through together. The smaller pieces can literally fall through the cracks and get swept into landfill.
  • Collect scraps of paper, such as receipts and post-it notes, and stuff them in an envelope (you don’t need to remove the windows of envelopes, FYI).
  • Don’t put stainless steel, eg broken water bottles or saucepans, into your kerbside recycling bin. These can be taken to the tip and added to the steel collection there. Magnets won’t stick to stainless steel so use this to test containers you’re unsure about. If the magnet sticks, it can go in the kerbside recycling bin.
  • Only “packaging glass” can be recycled, so no Pyrex, porcelain, ceramic or drinking glasses in the bin.
  • There are some papers that can’t be recycled, such as plastic-coated, super-shiny paper (eg Reflex A4 packaging), thermal paper receipts, photos, wax-coated boxes, plastic-coated cups such as McDonald’s and disposable coffee cups.

So here’s the part where I confess my sins… I was throwing a lot of soft-plastic packaging into the recycling bin because it had a number on it, plus  lots of small items like paper scraps and bottle caps that most likely fell through the cracks and ended up in landfill. I was also guilty of putting the odd meat tray in (it’s best to avoid buying these all together). How do you go? Are you a master recycler?

Share your recycling tips or ask questions in the comments below!

photo credit: Rubbermaid Products via photopin cc


  1. Krista says

    No meat trays in the recycling? And no thermal receipts either? Both of those I’ve been recycling. I know I should refuse the receipts because of the BPA, but I keep track of our spending so receipts make that easier. Why do they insist on having thermal paper at checkouts anyway?
    Good tip about the small bits of paper though. I should do that.

    • (dt)em says

      Krista, I would definitely check with your local council on the meat trays as it depends on how they sort the mixed materials. I was putting them in too. The only option for me now is to avoid them all together.

    • (dt)em says

      Hi Angela, it’s the plastic bags and wraps such as pasta and rice packets, clingfilm, lolly bags, the wraps on fruit and vegetables. Anything that is plastic and scrunchable. Hope that clears it up!

  2. Susan says

    I checked with my council earlier in the year when I did a post about it and was amazed what I had been doing wrong. There are some things I still get wrong, but things where I changed my ways were taking lids off bottles and putting plastic ones in plastic bottles and metal ones in cans, and then squeezing them shut. They apparently need the lids off even if it’s off the same material (e.g. a plastic milk bottle) as this is the only way they can be sure that no liquid contaminants are still in the bottles.

    I didn’t know about plastic meat trays though, I have been recycling them. Also I didn’t know about foil – I thought my council didn’t accept it which really annoys me, might double check that!!

    Also this may seem obvious to some, but years ago I used to take the staples out of my paper before recycling it, and the plastic tape off cardboard boxes, but apparently this is all ok. So confusing! I wish there was a universal Australian recycling system…

    They should spend government money on ads telling people how to recycle properly. Would save so much money, time and help the environment. Ahhhh so frustrating.
    Susan recently posted..I’ve saved 60 lives!My Profile

    • (dt)em says

      Thanks for your comment Suz. The plastic lids on bottles thing is a good illustration of how each council varies so greatly. We were told we didn’t need to remove the lids anymore, just make sure they were empty! I guess it depends on how the company at the end of the process deals with the materials. Definitely check on the meat trays and foil. We are a long way from national standards on recycling, which is really dumb considering it is only going to become more important. They’re already mining landfills in VIC and NSW to get to metals that are buried within them!

  3. kirri says

    This is a brilliant post Jo! So helpful. I have always wondered how they separate everything and now I know how I can do a better job at my end.

  4. Romi says

    Great post as always Jo, thank you. And I must say that I think it would be a really interesting outing! I was also making some mistakes, but not anymore!



  5. sarah says

    I was told thin plastics like biscuit trays should not go in the recycling. If in doubt, they can be put in the coles soft plastic recycling.

  6. Gillian says

    Helpful post and a good reminder. I didn’t know about collecting small bits of paper together so I’ll do that from now on.
    One item that always frustrates me that we can’t recycle where I live is polystyrene. Did your council have a recycling option for that or do you know of a national one that we can take it to like for batteries and ink cartridges?

    • (dt)em says

      Hi Gillian, the kerbside facilities generally can’t take polystyrene, in fact they hate it! But it is 100% recyclable and the companies that make it tend to recycle it as well. You could collect it at home then find your nearest collection point at Planet Ark’s Recycling Near You website. Use the drop down menu on the left to select Polystyrene.

  7. Stephen says

    I am just clarifying that meat trays can’t be recycled and neither can Mcdonalds cups even if these are clean as these are plastic coated?? Steve

    • (dt)em says

      Hi Steve, sorry about the late reply, but that’s certainly correct for my council. The foam trays get mixed up with the paper and McDonald’s cups are coated with plastic so can’t be recycled. Thanks for checking!

  8. Pamela Thompson says

    Brilliant post! It is very important to know how to separate trash and prepare it for recycling! I work at a company ( that is gathering waste and recycling it and I can say that people are not that serious about recycling as they should be. There is a lot to learn about managing our waste and the importance of this. Teaching our children about recycling is very important! Thank you for sharing!

  9. Kayla Rogers says

    I didn’t realize that bagging recyclables could be so detrimental! I recently got a separate bin so I could recycle more often, but it sounds like there’s a lot more things you need to be cognizant of to really make a difference. I’m glad I know about more of them now, though! Thanks for the information, I’ll have to implement them.

  10. AntoineJoseph says


    Its an amazing post for every individual and for consumers too .

    When you consider that recycled paper uses only 20% of the energy required to create paper from basic pulp this is the kind of savings we can make on a long-term basis.

    While at this moment in time many of the recycling ideas which are floating around the Internet are attracting some attention, many people are ignoring the recycling craze potentially to their cost in the future.

    I must say that everyone should be motivated to follow the recycling ideas..
    Thank you so much for this share.
    God Bless U!!
    Keep doing good work.

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