After three decades of recycling, why do we still get it wrong?
Australia has a strong dependence on landfill as a form of waste management. The majority of waste that is not recycled or reused in Australia is disposed of in the nation’s landfills.
The most up-to-date stats show Australians generated 67 million tonnes of waste in 2016-2017.
Of that, about 54 million tonnes is known as ‘core waste’ and is dealt with by the waste and resource recovery industry.
The rest are things like ash from electricity generation, mud from refining, manure from farming and liquid waste such as sewage – stuff that can’t be picked up by a truck on bin day.
While much the focus is on households, more than a third of our waste comes from the construction and demolition industry, and the same amount comes from the commercial and industrial sector.
Compared with other similar developed countries, the Department of Environment says we generate “more waste than the average” and recycle “a little less than the average”.
In 2018, a spotlight was shone on the unsustainable way Australia deals with rubbish and recycling.
China announced it would stop accepting our recycling waste due to the low quality and Malaysia followed suit shortly afterwards.
This caused a recycling crisis, and an overwhelming amount of recycling was instead sent straight to landfill.
Victoria was particularly affected. One local council announced it had to send an estimated 780 rubbish trucks’ worth of recyclables straight to landfill in one week.
These international waste bans exposed Australia’s recycling industry for what it really was: a sham.
Many residents thought the items they put in their yellow bins were going to be sustainably recycled. However, most of it was simply being shipped to other countries to end up in landfill there.
But the shameful revelations have prompted action, according to Planet Ark’s deputy chief executive Rebecca Gilling.
“The China waste ban in 2018 was the game-changer. It really made it clear to governments and industry in Australia that we really need to manage our waste onshore, rather than shipping it off in in the sort of co-mingled arrangements that we had,” Ms Gilling told The New Daily.
“A lot of work has been done in the last few years towards building that industry in Australia, and with a lot of support from governments at federal and state level as well.”
Federal legislation was passed in December 2020 to ban the export of unprocessed waste overseas. But there was no nationwide reaction to this in terms of helping people to recycle more and recycle better. Some councils added extra bins to the curbside collection, so households could better separate their waste and increase the chance of it being recycled. But this hasn’t been implemented everywhere yet.
“Consumers have been demanding it as have recyclers . . . because it’s a case of garbage in, garbage out,” Ms Gilling explained.
“If you can do much more separating at the curbside, at the household level, then you get a much better and more valuable material at the other end.”
Food organics, garden organics (FOGO)
In Victoria, nearly one-third of councils are now providing residents with FOGO bins.
FOGO is a cost-effective way for councils to collect food waste and compost it into a nutrient-rich product.
Read more: Transform your food scraps into treasure
Users of this free service will receive a FOGO kitchen caddy along with compostable liners and an outside FOGO bin.
Unfortunately, many councils have been slow to adopt this great new service, with it only being available in limited parts of Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania.
The latest area to have implemented FOGO is Randwick in Sydney but it’s hoping to expand exponentially.
It could be a great way to achieve the National 80 per cent diversion from landfill target (by 2030) and real greenhouse gas reductions, but a lot more people need to get on board.
Some councils have also introduced separate glass bins.
Recycling near you
From mobile phones to printer cartridges and soft plastics, “we’re also seeing more opportunities to recycle a whole lot of other items through drop-off locations,” Ms Gilling said.
Planet Ark offers an online tool called Recycling Near You that allows consumers to plug in their postcode and find out where the nearest recycling facility is for different types of materials.
Here are 10 common items that can be recycled, but often aren’t
Soft plastics: plastic bags and other soft plastics cannot go into your curbside recycling bin. But you can deposit these into a REDcycle bin. These are found in most Coles and Woolworths stores. Soft plastics are widely used in food packaging and broadly include “anything that is plastic and can be scrunched.”
Aluminium foil: aluminium is a “fantastic material that can be recycled endlessly without changing its structure at all”, Ms Gilling said. “You can recycle foil, but you have to scratch it into a ball and collect enough of it so that it’s larger than the size of a golf ball or larger. Anything smaller than that doesn’t work for the recycling machinery.
Batteries (including lead acid): lead acid batteries are 98 per cent recyclable and are hazardous if not handled correctly. Drop off points are also located at most Aldi, Repco Auto, Battery World or Super Cheap Auto Stores, or visit The Australian Battery Recycling Initiative for more information.
Textiles: “More companies are getting involved in clothing and textile recycling bed linen,” Ms Gilling said. Fast fashion retailer H&M is one of a number of brands accepting old clothes. Old clothing, blankets or sheets can also be donated to your local charity store. The RSPCA or local pound often accept blankets and towels in the winter.
Electronics and e-waste: Australians are among the highest users of electronics in the world, and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste.
This isn’t only a huge waste of precious resources, but also a potential danger as the toxic metal elements found in e-waste can be damaging to the environment and to our health.
Recycling your unwanted electronics helps reduce the need to mine raw materials for new technology. The e-waste we collect is diverted from landfill and around 95 per cent of raw materials recovered are recycled.
Mattresses: mattresses are one of the most common items sent to landfill. But most components of a mattress can be recycled, which diverts these large waste items from landfill. Mattresses in good condition can also be cleaned and donated to charities to help them provide low-cost bedding.
Lightbulbs: when fluorescent tubes and other mercury-containing lights end up in landfill, the mercury inside them can leak into the air, soil and waterways. Just one fluoro tube contains enough mercury to pollute 30,000 litres of water beyond a safe level of drinking.
Recycling lighting waste also helps recover resources, including mercury, aluminium and phosphor, that can be reused in new products.
Many council offices and waste depots will accept lightbulbs for recycling, as do all IKEA stores.
X-rays: not too typical for the regular household but X-rays can and should be recycled. X-ray films contain silver in the form of halides, which can be extracted and converted into pure silver.
Coffee capsules: these capsules cannot currently be accepted in curbside recycling bins. But some manufacturers offer a recycling program.
Nespresso provides a free recycling service for its coffee capsules, recovering both the aluminium packaging and coffee grounds. Customers can recycle their capsules at one of the 19,000 drop-off points around Australia or return them through the post. Bulk collection boxes are also available to businesses and organisations.
Paint: recycling company Paintback collects and treats paint and packaging. Waste paint is treated in a number of ways including energy recovery and liquid/solid separation for water-based paint, significantly minimising landfill over alternative practices.
Along with disposing of waste paint responsibly, Paintback is committed to researching new ways to repurpose unwanted paint materials.
How much do you recycle? Do you have a FOGO bin? Would you recycle food waste and scraps?
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