Over the last 20 years recycling has become a part of everyday life. Whereas it was once the preserve of a committed few who were prepared to transport boxes of recyclables to facilities some kilometres distant, today the majority of Australian households have a recycling bin outside their door.
Once upon a time, Australia households generated only a minimal amount of garbage. However, since the start of the modern consumer era in the 1950’s, the volume of what we throw away has grown exponentially as a result of mass consumption, overpackaging, and the arrival of planned obsolescence, where products are designed to fail and are cheap to replace.
Far-fetched as it sounds today, rubbish was once dumped at sea, until health problems arose from its washing back onshore. It then became common for it to be burnt in backyards or municipal incinerators until the practice was stopped due to air pollution complaints. Next, it was trucked to landfill sites that have become increasingly large and expensive to manage.
Recycling first appeared during the 1970’s, when the newly-rediscovered science of ecology started to permeate the mass consciousness. The cycling of waste feedstocks back into industrial manufacturing processes was seen as having multiple benefits. Demand for virgin materials could be reduced, curtailing pollution, habitat destruction and other environmental impacts. Energy and water savings would both be obtained, and in more recent years climate benefits have also been recognised.
Over the last 20 years recycling has become a part of everyday life. Whereas it was once the preserve of a committed few who were prepared to transport boxes of recyclables to facilities some kilometres distant, today the majority of Australian households have a recycling bin outside their door. The characteristic ‘Mobius Loop’ triple-arrow symbol is nearly universally recognised in industrialised countries.
While recycling has attracted negative attention from cynics who portray it as a feel-good exercise with no real benefit, in most instances there are obvious environmental gains. Comparing recycled with virgin feedstocks, energy savings for aluminium cans are around 93%. Other figures include steel cans (a 79% saving), PET plastic (76%), glass (57%), newspaper (34%), and cardboard (22%.)
Sometimes the news is less encouraging. In Western Australia, where the only glass recycling plant shut down in 2003, this material is trucked all the way to Adelaide for processing, offsetting many of the environmental gains. The WA government is looking into re-establishing recycling facilities in the state, and hopefully a solution can be found soon.
According to the ‘3R’s’ Reduce, Reuse, Recycle waste hierarchy, the most effective strategies for beating garbage is to avoid generating it at the point of purchase. This may involve such waste minimisation practices as refilling the same jar from a bulk dispenser in a wholefood store, keeping your own cup at work for the drinks machine, or taking tough bags to the supermarket. Second best is reuse, which includes such practices as saving empty jars, or using a milk carton as a tree planter. Most non-functioning items can be repaired, although sometimes this involves extra cost and a high degree of persistence.
The status of Australian recycling
On average, a typical Australian household generates around 700 kilograms of garbage per year, a figure that puts us second among OECD countries. The 95% recycling participation rate is very high though, and has been found to be highest in households where there are children. Recovery rates for different materials have steadily increased and now vary between 73% for newspaper and 31% for hard plastic.
Australian attitudes towards recycling are generally positive, and it seems that most people are happy to devote a small amount of extra time to it each week. The main barrier is a lack of knowledge of what can be recycled locally, and a helpful information resource is the detailed Recycling Near You online database run by Sensis and the environment group Planet Ark.
Many local councils encourage greater recycling through practices such as levying higher charges for larger bins. Other proven ways to boost resource recovery include the provision of recycling facilities at large events, and in central business districts for people on the move. There is scope for increased recycling at workplaces, particularly where paper is concerned, and some useful tips are offered on the website of the Recycle at Work program that is running in Western Australia.
Overseas, the countries with the world’s highest recycling rates are Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. In Switzerland, residents have to pay steeply to throw away recyclable items, while in Austria recycling is compulsory for everyone. Such strong stances are obviously effective, but would probably go against the grain of Australia’s more laissez-faire culture.
What can be recycled?
The many options for passing on usable items include garage sales, op shop donations, and newspaper adverts. Some op shops accept working electrical items, but check first to avoid the risk of having them discarded. Another possibility is Freecycle, an international network with numerous online groups across Australia whose members offer unwanted usable items to the other participants.
When it comes to kerbside recycling, most councils accept a wide range of materials including paper, cardboard, bottles, jars, steel and aluminium cans, aerosol cans, plastic containers, milk cartons, and aluminium-lined liquidpaperboard cartons. As growing volumes of waste are diverted from landfill, unrecyclable forms of plastic packaging are increasingly filling up the bins of diligent recyclers.
Organic and green waste, which is estimated to make up half of the total household waste stream, becomes a significant generator of the greenhouse gas methane if it is left to rot in a landfill. A growing number of councils provide a separate collection bin for these wastes, and compost them in large worm farm facilities where they are turned into saleable fertiliser. If you don’t have a green waste collection, two options are composting or having a balcony worm farm.
How to recycle problem wastes?
Computers and other e-waste items contain recoverable metals such as platinum and gold in addition to several toxic components. For computers that are not too out-of-date, donating may be an option. Councils are increasingly likely to provide collection facilities; otherwise most e-waste is collected on a pay-to-recycle basis.
The ideal solution for e-waste would be a national Extended Producer Responsibility scheme where manufacturers are obliged to take back products at the end of their life for reuse or recycling of components. Such programs are running in the European Union, Japan and South Korea.
Before recycling any e-waste item, check that it will not be exported to Asia, where primitive recycling practices can be very damaging to the environment and human health.
The nationwide industry-run Mobile Muster program has a list of drop-off locations on its website, while the Mobile Phone Recycling site with its freepost satchels may be more suited to people in remote rural locations. Mobile Muster also accepts mobile phone batteries.
At present Australia’s tyre recycling rates are very low. Before having your vehicle’s tyres replaced, ask the garage whether they recycle used tyres and find out the name of the collection company. In the recycling process, old tyres are usually shredded and crumbled for use in a range of rubber products. A new Australian process called Molectra is capable of breaking down tyres cleanly while leaving no waste.
Batteries – car
These contain a large quantity of lead, so check with your garage that they will recycle your old battery before arranging a replacement. Alternatively, many council waste transfer stations accept car batteries for recycling, as does Battery World (131 760.)
Batteries – household
Although these contain a range of toxic chemicals, surprisingly Australia still has no national battery recycling program for the single-use variety. Dead batteries are collected at Battery World (131 760), and rechargeables can be dropped off under the BatteryBack program (1800 353 233) operating only in the Melbourne area.
Under the national drumMUSTER program, empty triple-rinsed farm chemical containers are collected by local councils for recycling.
Closing the loop
Other than buying secondhand, the second best environmental option is generally to buy products that are labelled as having a high recycled content. This closes the recycling loop by boosting the demand for recycled feedstocks, and would keep within Australia some of the million tonnes of recycled fibre that are exported annually, primarily to Asia. For the average shopper, three recycled options on the shelves are toilet paper, tissue paper, and copy paper.
A product can get away with being described as ‘recycled’ if it contains manufacturer’s offcuts rather than the post-consumer material that most people associate with genuine recycling. Another rubbery claim is the wording ‘made with recycled material’, which avoids specifying whether this applies to 5% or 100% of the total content. To find out the post-consumer content, ask the manufacturer. Where no recycled option exists, choose products whose packaging is locally recyclable.
In additional to the efforts of households, the government and corporate sectors can both exert a great deal of influence through preferential ‘buy recycled’ purchasing. The NSW Government’s Waste Reduction and Purchasing Policy encourages the purchase of recycled items, but is constrained by the need for these products to be cost-competitive with non-recycled choices. For local councils, a wide range of recycled options includes road and pavement material, sewerage and drainage products, speed bumps, and traffic cones.
Recycling economics and container deposits
With landfill costs having risen to around $120 per tonne in the Sydney area, there is a growing financial incentive for investment in cutting-edge waste technologies. At Eastern Creek, a company called Global Renewables has recently established a plant that accepts 11% of Sydney’s waste, and recovers 70% of the materials while generating sufficient biogas to power 2,250 households. More plants of this type are in the pipeline.
Despite the efficiency of kerbside collections, it has been estimated by the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) that they are costing local councils, and ultimately ratepayers, around $300 million per year. This gap represents the difference between the cost of running the service and revenue from the sale of recyclables.
The ALGA and other local government bodies strongly support the introduction of Container Deposit Legislation (CDL) as a means of tackling this financial shortfall. Under a CDL system, people drop off cans and bottles at special centres in return for a deposit, encouraging greater recycling and providing an incentive for containers to be picked up from the street. CDL has the capacity to provide councils with an extra income stream while reducing the volume of kerbside waste that needs to be collected and sorted.
A five-cent container deposit on beverage containers that was introduced in South Australia in 1977 has led to Australia’s highest recycling rate (51%) and a marked reduction in litter. Despite its success, no other state has so far followed suit, largely due to vigorous lobbying from groups such as the Beverage Industry Environment Council. CDL requires companies to take responsibility for returned containers, and manufacturers object to taking on this added burden. Earlier this year, the Northern Territory Government called for the introduction of a national CDL scheme, but such a move looks unlikely.
Once the manufacturer has a glass bottle back in its hands, cleaning and refilling is often cheaper than recycling and new manufacturing: this practice is currently followed in several EU countries as part of their CDL systems. Although refilling would be a good environmental outcome, industry is particularly resistant to it, instead preferring one-use disposable products and the existing kerbside collection-orientated system.
Ten ways to improve how you recycle
- Before recycling, ask yourself whether the item could be reused.
- Check the wastes that your council accepts for recycling using the database on the Recycling Near You website.
- Contamination can result in entire loads being dumped instead of recycled. Avoid this risk by putting material in the right bin, and washing items first. Don’t tie up your recyclables in a plastic bag, and avoid putting out food-stained cardboard such as pizza boxes. Only the type of glass used to make bottles and jars is recyclable.
- For hard plastic items, look at the recycling code on the bottom. Some, such as number 1, will probably be accepted locally, while others may not.
- Tear up cardboard boxes to prevent jamming in the bin
- To recycle food cans, remove the lid, drop it to the bottom and squash the top. This removes the risk of people accidentally getting cut when handling them.
- Steel jar lids and bottle tops can be recycled. Put in an empty food can and squash the top.
- When recycling aerosol cans, ensure that they are empty, and do not crush.
- Except for aerosols, crush or flatten recyclables to reduce the amount of space occupied in the collection truck.
- If you don’t have a kerbside collection service, try to minimise the fuel used to transport recyclables to a council facility by combining trips.
Local recycling database www.recyclingnearyou.com.au
Mobile Phone Recycling www.mobilephonerecycling.com.au
Freecycle network www.freecycle.org/group/AU
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