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:
- 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.
- Do what your council tells you to do! Every MRF (materials recovery facility) works differently.
- Collect all steel and aluminium cans, paper products and rigid plastics such as bottles in your recycling bin.
- Don’t put other recyclables such as batteries, soft plastic packaging and appliances into the kerbside bin.
- 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:
- Truck dumps it in a pile.
- Bulldozer pushes pile into the pit.
- Rotating rubber blades take the waste onto a conveyor belt in one mixed “stream”.
- Humans pull out obvious contaminants like palm fronds and bagged recycling.
- 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.
- An electrical charge is wrapped around aluminium so it can be directed off the belt.
- Steel is diverted using magnets.
- Sorted materials are taken to respective recycling companies.
- 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?