Why it’so hard to recycle and why extra bins don’t necessarily help

A load of plastic water bottles

How many bins do you have at home?

We’re up to three, and my elderly mother in a rural town has been informed she will be getting a new one. So that’s four, for a tiny two-bedroom unit.

We are meant to carefully separate our waste into each bin, but some packaging is making it hard.

It’s a no-brainer that you should put glass in the recycling bin, but how clean does it have to be? Squeaky clean, or are a few bits of residual food allowed?

For the record, glass doesn’t need to be spotless, just swish some water around until most of the solids have gone and then replace the lid.

The lid bit is vital to ensure there is no spillage on other products in the bin, which can reduce their chance of being recycled.

Can we be bothered?

Envelopes should go in the paper recycling, but what about those clear windows? Should you remove them first? And who could be bothered?

Many packages helpfully have instructions on how to recycle them (they are those tiny symbols somewhere on the packaging) but there are a few problems with even those token gestures.

For starters, they often don’t cover ‘multiples’. Tea bags are a good example. You can recycle the cardboard container, but the tea bags are often made of plastic

And as in the earlier envelope example, they don’t cover the fact that while it says it can be recycled it often doesn’t make it clear which parts.

We must get it right because, unfortunately, Australians love plastic. We use more single-use plastic than any other country in the world bar Singapore, according to a government report.

Poor recycling record

And even if we do put it in the recycling, Australia has a pretty poor record when it comes to turning it into anything useful.

According to Paul’s Rubbish Removal, our recycling rate for plastics remains low at 13.1 per cent recovered.

We thought we were doing okay with recycling for a while there, but it turns out we were just shipping it to China, which promised they were recycling and that was good enough for us.

When China refused to accept any more waste in 2017, the problem was exposed.

In 2018, Australia established 2025 National Packaging Targets:

  • 100 per cent of packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70 per cent of plastic packaging recycled or composted
  • 50 per cent average recycled content included in packaging
  • The phase-out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging.

Needless to say, we are not on track for any of them.

“We know we also need to produce and use less plastic in the first place, and it’s clear that voluntary targets for packaging aren’t working,” federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek told The Age.

So what can we do improve recycling?

Prevention is better than cure

Clean Up Australia chair Pip Kiernan says we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution.

“Recycling must become ‘the last line of thinking’ in tackling plastic waste,” Ms Kiernan told The Age.

“Our first thought should be: ‘how can I avoid this in the first place?’ We need to get into the habit of expanding how we refuse, reduce and reuse, before we consider recycling.”

Your first step should be bottled water and drinks in general. Australia has some of the safest drinking water in the world, yet we persist in buying single-use water bottles. 

Always use reusable shopping bags. No excuses. If you can’t supply your own, find a local Boomerang Bags group. Not only are you buying a reusable bag, but the bag itself is made out of recycled textiles.

The World Wide Fund for Nature also recommends using reusable coffee cups. And before you wonder how much it matters, Australians use about 1.8 billion disposable cups a year. 

In that vein, also avoid plastic cutlery and plates. There are plenty of alternatives available these days, and even cute reusable cutlery sets you can take everywhere.

Replace your own ‘packaging’. Instead of putting cling wrap over leftovers, place it in a reusable container with a lid.

And if you haven’t already, stop smoking. Cigarette filters are made from non-biodegradable plastic that can take up to 12-15 years to break down. 

However, it can’t just be left up to consumers, there needs to be a quantum shift in industry and government support. 

Households produce 47 per cent of plastic waste, which means industry produces 53 per cent.

So perhaps the best move you can make is asking your local government representative, at all levels, what they are doing to support change before we all drown in plastic.

Have you tried to cut down on plastic? What measures did you take? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?

Also read: How to safely get rid of cooking oil

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


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  1. I have been recycling different objects over the years many years . At the time I didn’t know my recycling was going overseas . I have also been recycling my food scraps in my own very small garden with meat scraps etc going into the rubbish bin .Now that I have the extra green bin for food scraps and garden refuse I have to keep putting out a nearly empty bin every week so it wont smell . Not well thought out . as for recycling glass and plastic ,take them to a shop counter and hand them over ,Is that so we wont do it ?

  2. I have found that our local Woolies and Coles have removed their soft plastics receptive bins some time ago. There was no answer but “dunno”. No encouragement to recycle!

    • The REDCycle company stopped collecting and then became insolvent. It was well publicised at the time. It wasn’t a decision of the supermarkets.

      “On 9 November 2022 REDcycle announced that it was suspending its soft plastics collection program as its recycling partners had temporarily stopped accepting and processing soft plastics. The suspension of the REDcycle program removed the only established and widespread recycling pathway for consumers and created significant concerns about existing stockpiles and how consumers can recycle soft plastics.

      Following REDcycle’s announcement, Coles and Woolworths each announced that they would be suspending soft plastics collections from their stores until further notice.

      On 25 November 2022, the ACCC granted interim authorisation to the supermarkets.

      On 26 February 2023, the supermarkets assumed responsibility for the REDcycle stockpiles.

      On 27 February 2023, REDcycle was declared insolvent and a liquidator was appointed.”

    • Crikey, In reality, the soft plastics have never been recycled. The only way to reduce them is through incineration but Australia no longer uses that disposal method.
      As all plastics do break down in the environment, including landfill, discarding them in our general waste is a tolerable action.

  3. The “forever” plastic is a myth. All plastics do breakdown in the environment. It is just that too many of them are discarded as litter and can cause other environmental harm before they have degraded to basic flakes.
    Many local Authorities are caught on State Government mandates to reduce their landfill and are looking at ways to reduce this. Plastics can actually be included in controlled incineration systems that can harvest the heat to produce power, but this is out of favour in Australia. All landfill sites must be registered and monitored and tested for unacceptable contaminants on a regular basis. This comes at a cost and it is feared that some local authorities will find it easier to seek out private landfill operators to bury their worries remotely.
    Re-using plastics as much as possible is one course of action but eventually we do end up with more plastic containers than purposes for them and the general waste may be the inescapable route of disposal.

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