Reduce, reuse, recycle. I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand and one times before. But what does that mean and how does that impact your home or workplace? Well, for starters in 2017-18, we used some 3.4 million tonnes of plastics in Australia and only 9.4% of that was recycled. So, it means a lot. And as the war on waste continues around the world, Australians are demanding to know where our waste is headed! We’re also becoming much more accountable for our own environmental impact, so we explored some of the issues around recycling and some simple yet impactful ways we can reduce household and workplace waste.
So, what is the main issue?
For decades, much of the world’s waste ended up in China, until they closed their doors to it in 2017. Since then, our state and local governments have struggled to cope with the thousands of tonnes of recyclable waste collecting in depots and warehouses around the country, with much of this inevitably bound for Asia, where it is burned or dumped.
What is the Government doing about it?
The Australian Government has pledged to ensure that 100% of Australian packaging will be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 – just five years from now! It’s an ambitious and optimistic number, that will be difficult to reach unless real action is taken – and as it’s not being enforced, the onus has been put on households to voluntarily make an impact. And so far it’s been slow going: the Plastic Shopping Bags (Waste Avoidance) Bill passed the Parliament of South Australia in November 2008 – almost 12 years ago, and it’s not yet across all states – NSW come on guys!
What can we do about it?
There are plenty of simple little things we can do at home without spending money…some can even save you money! Consider rinsing and reusing sauce jars, ice-cream containers and plastic bottles – you can use these to keep leftovers instead of wrapping plates with cling wraps.
There are many different ways to recycle, so we thought we’d focus on some low-effort, high-impact initiatives to try in your home or workplace.
Most plastic lids are generally a different kind of plastic than their counterparts. This means they are processed differently (depending on your local council’s waste facility). Please check your local council website to see whether to separate the lid from the bottle before putting it in the recycling, as it varies from council to council. My local council for example accepts plastic lids in the recycling, whereas Blacktown council in NSW does not.
Examples of common items that need lids/plastics to be separated
- Milk cartons
- Water / soft drink bottles
- Wine / spirits / beer bottle caps
- Coffee cups
- Yogurt containers
- Bread tags
But don’t stop there! If you have gone to the trouble of separating the lids, why not donate them to the Target 100,000 initiative by Grow with Joe and Envision, who recycle millions of bottle tops and transform them into 3D printed prosthetic hands, mobility aids, disability aids, STEM training tools, and aged care gadgets.
Most paper cups can’t be recycled because they’re actually coated in plastic to better enable retention of fluid. It’s also why they don’t get broken down into pulp and turned into recycled paper, so our coffee cups and water cooler cups will most likely end up in landfill. Our very own Hannah Gray, recently started a coffee cup recycling initiative - she collects disposable coffee cups and takes them to a Simply Cups collection station – one of 500 across Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia!
Plastic comes in different shapes, sizes and most importantly – disposability. One type of plastic you may not know about is soft plastic – which is the plastic found on your tissue box, plastic bags, bread bags, the advertising film around bottles, as well as biscuit and confectionery packets. Generally speaking, if you can squash it into a ball with your hands, then that plastic can be collected and repurposed while bypassing the typical recycling process. Next time you’re heading to your local supermarket, look out for the bins from organisations like REDcycle, who facilitate collection for manufacturers such as Replas. They produce a wide range of recycled plastic products, from fitness circuits to sturdy outdoor furniture, to bollards, signage and more.
Australians are dumping 6,000 kilograms of clothing (check out ABC's War on Waste series) in landfill every 10 minutes. Luckily, clothing retailers such as H&M, Zara and Manrags each have garment collection programs for clothing or textiles, which they reuse or recycle.
Try re-purposing or upcycling old clothes and furniture into something else rather than throwing them out, or if they are in good condition, donate to a charity. Why not go one step further? Some charity stores now have designer clothing sections – buy second hand!
What not to do
There are two basic ways to sort recycling: mechanical-biological treatment plants, which sort mixed waste into low-grade recycling, and material recovery facilities, which have a stronger focus on extracting reusable stuff. Right now, there are 193 material recovery facilities in Australia. Most are hand-sorted; nine are semi-automated, and nine are fully automated.
What makes it easier across the board, is to make sure your recycling isn’t bundled up into a plastic bag – this allows easier sorting of the rubbish for the people and machines. Set your recycling free.
Just because you’re not keeping them (shame on you) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be rinsing your recyclables! Why? Because if you contaminate what’s in the recycle bin – it is unsanitary for workers to deal with. It can also damage sorting machines and contaminate other good quality materials in the bin - the entire batch of it could even be sent to landfill. "We need the Australian government and private enterprise to improve sorting capacity within Australia. The technology exists, we just need more of it. We also need households to reduce the level of contamination," – says Deakin University's Trevor Thornton, an expert in hazardous materials management.
It doesn’t have to be perfectly clean – an unrinsed sauce jar cannot go in the recycle bin, but a pizza box with small grease stain can – you just really need to use your best judgement. Nappies are also a no-no, otherwise they will also contaminate the rest of the items.
Alternative methods for reducing landfill waste
Composting & Worm farms
Composting can save you money, improve your garden and reduce your impact on the environment. Basically, composting is a natural process where billions of microorganisms break down your food scraps and other natural materials into a stable form. It enriches your soil, so no need to go out and buy bags of fertiliser or manure. However, when this occurs in a landfill it can produce methane gas and contaminate nearby water.
Haven’t got much space? No worries! A worm farm can be small enough for an apartment or unit, so you can turn your food scraps into a nutritious garden resource and keep your food out of landfill. The worms give you a great natural resource to sprinkle in your garden to make it healthy and beautiful.
Chemicals and e-waste
Household hazardous waste can be things like motor oil, paints, anti-freeze, pesticides and e-waste.
Disposal of this waste varies from state to state and sometimes even council to council – Brisbane, QLD for example have free drop-off days where residents can dispose of certain amounts of waste in a safe manner. ACT lists two facilities where you can drop off this hazardous waste free of charge. NSW offers a similar initiative, where household waste can be taken to a CleanOut event and disposed of for free, commercial waste is managed differently. Victoria also offers households a free event at different locations where you can dispose of this dangerous waste safely.
Tech-heads wondering what to do with their old gear (computers, photocopiers, printers, printer cartridges, monitors, batteries and mobile phones etc.) should check out our blog to read more on proper e-waste disposal. When e-waste is sent to landfill, poisonous substances such as lead, mercury and arsenic can leach from decomposing waste and into the environment, contaminating soil and water sources.
One of the biggest contributors to plastic waste in Australia is packaging, of which there is just under one million tonnes in our marketplace at any given time. Only about 32% of this is recovered, and less than 5% is made of recycled plastic. As most people know, consumer demand drives the market, so if we as consumers keep purchasing cheap, single-use, environmentally unfriendly products, then we will continue to damage our earth. But if we consciously make a decision to purchase items made from recycled material, dispose of our waste properly, reuse as much as possible and expect better from companies, we can drive the market demand and push for better reforms to keep Australia beautiful.