Doing the right thing

22 August 2011

Written by: KATE SCARFF

Deciding what can and can’t go in the recycling bin is a discussion I have with myself every day.  Cleaning up around the home, the dilemma, ‘Is this recyclable?’, strikes without fail.

Keen to do the right thing, I make an effort to ensure all plastics, glass, aluminium and paper that are recyclable go into the recycling bin.

But I know I make mistakes.  When I am not sure, I will place the questionable item in the recycling bin.  Surely it is better to offer the item for recycling than send it to landfill?

Keep Australia Beautiful Week starts today.  It is a timely reminder to consider how we can reduce our impact on the environment.  Recycling household waste is one way we can make a difference.  According to Sustainability Victoria, recycling material that may otherwise go to landfill reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, conserves water and energy and conserves resources.

Someone who knows the ins and outs of recycling is Margaret Morgan.  Morgan is the Waste Education Co-ordinator at the Banyule Waste Recovery Centre, where she has worked for the past 16 years.

‘Australians have a good understanding of the need for recycling and they do try to place the appropriate items into the recycling bin,’ says Morgan.

But while we may have good intentions, Morgan says we do not always get it right.

‘The types of recycling material are extensive in terms of the type of articles that can be recycled and this can be quite confusing for the average Australian,’ she says.

Recycling with enthusiasm, Australians tend to put as much as they can into their recycle bin.  According to Morgan, non-recyclable items such as plastic bags, plastic film, drinking glasses and clothing often make their way into people’s yellow lid bin.  But this enthusiasm can have disastrous effects with some contaminated loads being diverted to landfill.

Recycling plastics is an area where improvements can be made.  The latest annual figures for recycling in Victoria are provided in Sustainability Victoria’s report, Victorian Recycling Industries Annual Report 2008-2009.  The report shows that 60% of plastic in household waste was recovered for reprocessing in 2008-2009 and plastics account for 5% of waste in landfill.

So how can we improve the rate of recycling for plastics?

The recycle triangle with a number between 1 and 7 is the main criteria by which consumers can determine if the plastic is recyclable.  Interestingly, the triangle system was not developed to aid identification of recyclable materials for consumers.  ‘The recycle triangle and the numbers 1-7 were implemented by manufacturers’, explains Morgan.  ‘They need to know what the plastic is before they can recycle or reuse it.’

But not all councils collect 1 – 7 plastics.  For example, some may only recycle 1 2, 3 and 5.

There are also missed opportunities for recycling plastics when the plastic has no recycle triangle. For instance, yoghurt containers and other dairy dessert containers from the dairy case in the supermarket are recyclable but they often don’t have the triangle symbol.

So how do we know when we can recycle plastics that have no recycle symbol?

‘The rule of thumb is that items have to be a hard rigid container that holds something or have a recycle symbol 1 – 7,’ explains Morgan.  ‘If the recycling is soft or can be squashed in your hand, then it cannot be recycled through the kerbside collection.’

When it comes to recycling glass, Morgan says jars and bottles without lids are recyclable but other types of glass cannot be recycled because the lead content is too high. ‘It doesn’t break down like the glass in bottles and jars.’

Recycling food organics is an area that is undeveloped in Australia.  According to bin audit data presented in the Victorian Recycling Industries Annual Report 2008-2009, it is estimated that 40% of waste disposed at kerbside is food organics and this accounts for 16% of waste in landfill.   ‘Councils are keen to reprocess / recycle food organics but they are still not clear when this would happen or how it will happen,’ says Morgan.

There are units available that recycle food organics at home and have the added benefit of producing an organic soil conditioner.  So until councils can recycle food waste, these systems provide a great way to reduce the amount of waste going into landfill.

Some other helpful tips to improve our recycling efficiency include rinsing containers in old water and wiping food off paper packaging before placing in the recycle bin.  Simple actions like these improve the efficiency of the reprocessing and reduce odours and vermin.

Council websites are also a great source of up-to-date information regarding what materials can be recycled from your kerbside collection.   If the item is not recyclable, you may be able to take the item directly to a reprocessing facility.

Feel empowered to Do the Right Thing?  I certainly hope so!

Kate Scarff is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart‘s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @katescarff