How To Recycle Correctly: The cost of recycling bin contamination
Recently, the crisis of recycling contamination hit mainstream consciousness in Australia with the announcement that Ipswich City Council had stopped all recycling. Under the heavy community backlash against a month of secretly trashing recycling bin contents, the city did end up signing another recycling contract at five times the price and reinstating the service for residents. However, it brought the topic of recycling bin contamination into the forefront of our minds and is now a key political discussion happening around the country.
Afterwards, Ipswich (an Australian city with a population of 200,000) announced they may bring in fines for residents that contaminate their recycling bins with non-recyclables. Additionally, the Queensland government itself are moving forward an added waste levy to cover the costs of increased recycling services around the state as a response to China's cancellation of recycling imports. The extra tax was originally planned for 2019 but has been moved up as a quick response to a crisis that's already reached tipping point.
The time for all Australians to take responsibility for our recycling and its increasing toll on the economy is right now.
So what do they mean by "contaminating" a bin? This is not about toxic substances or contagious diseases. Contamination means you place anything that cannot be recycled in the recycling bin. This is a problem because A) Contaminants can lower the quality of other items and render them useless to recycling plants, and B) We lack the employees to physically sort your trash for you, meaning it's not cost-effective to recycle anything from your bin. We have instructions on how to use the bins that prevent us from having to hire trash sorters and cleaners out of our taxes. It's expected that by the time your waste finds its way into a bin, it's in the correct place and ready to be recycled. This is just one of our responsibilities of adulthood.
While I'm sure it's different everywhere, in Australia any contamination will automatically send the contents of that recycling bin to landfill. And if your recycling bin is emptied into the recycling truck before they notice a contaminant, you run the risk of contaminating your whole neighbourhoods recycling. Just two houses using their recycling bins incorrectly could see an entire weekly bin collection sent to the dump instead of the recycling centre. Putting the wrong items into the recycling bin can be a worse option for the environment than putting them into the landfill bin. We have to be informed about what goes under each lid.
So... what does go in each bin? Below I'm going to delve into averages, focused around Queensland where I've lived most of my life. What goes in council recycling bins is a different list to the list of materials that can be recycled, and while some parts of the world are able to recycle all of the things I'll list below - If you live in Australia there are some standard items that do not go in kerbside recycling bins.
Things that commonly should go in recycling bins
- Thick plastic
Things commonly not thought to be recyclable, that are
- Aerosol cans
- Milk and juice cartons
Things commonly thought to be recyclable, that aren't
- Plastic bags
- Bottle lids
- Pizza boxes (if oily)
- Garden or food waste
- Electronic waste
- Bin bags used to hold the recycling
All these things can be recycled in their own way - that's just not what most council recycling bins are for. Head to the bottom of this post for resources on finding appropriate places to recycle your odds and ends. Also, if your council region is totally different or you're reading from another country - Apologies! I'm so happy and jealous if your local collection recycles these!
So after we decipher what does and doesn't go into a recycling bin, the next step is how to prepare your waste so that it's able to be recycled and doesn't contribute to recycling bin contamination.
It's important to note that whether recyclables need to be washed varies between councils. Depending on the council region, state or country you're reading from, you might be incensed to read that I'm recommending the protocol of washing recyclables, because your own council put out a PSA that you don't need to.
But there's no universal standard, it depends on the recycling centre near you. Some places require everything to be very clean, some require steel and plastic to be cleaned but can recycle things like dirty pizza boxes, and some can process most materials with food scraps. The explanation below is an if in doubt approach to recycling, until you know the specifics of your own region. If you don't know for sure that you can place items covered in food in the recycling bin, you could be doing more harm than good by presuming and contaminating your neighbourhoods recycling haul. It's safer and more sustainable to use a bit of water to rinse them off, for example using the leftover dish washing water, or putting your recyclable glass and steel in the dishwasher with your regular load.
And if you do live somewhere that allows food scraps on recyclables (score, saving water!) - It should always be kept in mind that they allow food within reason, and all bottles must be emptied of liquid and scraps should be scraped off with a knife.
Paper & cardboard
Paper and cardboard usually can't be recycled if it's dirty or covered in food. So if the bottom of your pizza box is soaked through with oil, you can actually rip the box in half and recycle the clean half. Once you finish with something made of paper, you want to set it aside or put it straight into your recycling bin keeping it fresh and clean. It's important to note tissues, toilet paper and paper towel don't count as paper or cardboard. All other types of paper are fine, yet if you're trying to recycle shredded paper it can clog up the recycling machines so shredded paper belongs with your green waste from the garden. (Shredded paper can even be used as mulch!)
Here I can borrow from my past blog post, 'Zero Waste Without The Bulk Stores: Doing your best in a small town'. "There's a general rule: The thicker the plastic, the better. The only plastic you realistically want to be buying is HDPE which is non-toxic and also recyclable. For an easy example, a 1L plastic bottle of vinegar would be more recyclable than a plastic biscuit packet. If it's thin and makes a crinkly sound when you scrunch it, the plastic is not ideal for recycling."
The plastics you can put in recycling include: Milk and juice jugs, spread jars (e.g. peanut butter), detergent or household cleaner bottles, some other condiment or oil bottles. To find out what the plastic is, just look for the number or acronym imprinted on the bottle itself, usually on the bottom. For a full list of plastics that are recycled in your area, use the resources at the bottom of the page to check with your council region, as well as the link to soft plastic recycling. Plastic bottles need to be rinsed and have the lid removed before they're put into recycling. Plastics covered in food will not be recycled, so do make sure your stuff is clean first. For small pieces of plastic that might be unsuitable to send to recycling on their own (e.g. those little soy sauce fish) you can collect them in a larger container like a juice bottle until it's ready to go into recycling.
Glass isn't recycled at very high rates (read this), because companies aren't buying it while it's cheaper to buy new glass. But we should still be doing our best and putting it into the recycling bin rather than landfill. Glass cannot be recycled if it's dirty or covered in food, it'll contaminate the machine. Heat resistant glass, such as the Pyrex containers, as well as light bulbs are also unable to be recycled.
Two types of metal go into the recycling bins: aluminium and steel. And the rule remains, the metal must be clean before it goes into the recycling bin. Aluminium is a resource very successfully recycled at high rates. You can in fact recycle used aluminium foil, it just requires a simple wipe down before putting it in the bin. Same with rinsing or soaking your aluminium cans, which we recycle billions of a year in Australia. You can also put coffee cans, milo tins, beer bottle lids, etc. into your recycling. For smaller pieces like aluminium foil from Easter eggs, you can scrunch it into a big ball that won't fall through the machine.
Where can I send the rest?
RedCycle for soft plastics
This solution has a huge question mark over their efficiency and is accused of sending things to landfill thanks to War On Waste's investigation, so I hesitate to recommend RedCycle too heavily. But they remain our primary option for recycling soft plastics that cannot go into recycling bins. Soft plastics can be recycled when there is a financial incentive. If we can back this initiative and actually clean it up to work effectively, this is a very cool option we're lucky to have. Drop your clean plastics like shopping bags into a bin located at many Woolworths or Coles.
TerraCycle for solid waste
TerraCycle is where to deliver your odd bits and pieces that can't be recycled through your council. This includes pens and pencils, toothbrushes and clean toothpaste tubes, old CDs and hard drives, shampoo bottles, hair nets, and all sorts of unique but weird things! It's always good to check TerraCycle's website for a collection point near you, or to request a free postage label to send in your items. Biome accepts drop off or post in items to be recycled, and they even sell TerraCycle bins so you can collect waste at a workplace (also available direct from their website), offering bins for things like gloves, mail bags and pens. You can even earn points that transfer into real cash by starting a recycling program in your community, for example encouraging your school to bring their used toothpaste tubes in.
Use RecylingNearYou for local drop-off
This Planet Ark initiative helps you find local landfill or dump and identifies what items they accept that don't go through the council recycling program. This includes your eWaste (batteries and computers, etc.), hazardous chemicals, white goods, scrap metal and building supplies, tyres, paint and all sorts of things, as well as excess regular recyclables. You can also use RecyclingNearYou to search for charities and re-use centres to drop off furniture, household items and in tact clothing to be resold, or damaged clothing to be turned into rags.
RecycleSmart and SustainMe apps for your local region
These apps weren't completely national when I last checked, but are both free apps that can help you check what your specific council region does and does not recycle, and where you can drop off those extra items nearby. Take a look and see if your region is covered! (RecycleSmart are also a Planet Ark initiative.)
H&M Garment Collection for worn clothing
You can drop worn clothes, even underwear, at H&M stores in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. They will have a box to accept donations near the desk if you just ask. By all reports, these donations really are being innovatively recycled and reused.
Your local charity shop
This one's on you, what do you have nearby? Vinnies, Salvos and Red Cross are nation-wide, with many independent church groups or women's shelters also collecting clothing, books, games and other bits and pieces from around the house.
While this topic could go on endlessly with all the ins and outs of different council regions and the amazing work of entrepreneurs successfully repurposing almost all materials (have you heard of rubber made from used chewing gum?) I hope this blog post can serve as an easy rundown of the basics of recycling, what you should keep out of your bin for the sake of everything else in there, and gets you looking in the right places to find the answers to your burning questions.