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  • On average, each Australian produces over 1000 kilos of solid waste every year. It all has to go somewhere. How do we ensure we recover as much material as possible? (Creative Commons)Source: Creative Commons
We buy, we use, we throw away. Or maybe we recycle, by putting the empty packet in the appropriate bin. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says, on average, each Australian produces over 1000 kilos of solid waste every year. It all has to go somewhere. How do we ensure we recover as much material as possible? *to hear the English language story, click on the AUDIO tab*
Signe Cane / SBS Radio Latvian

26 May 2015 - 5:15 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2015 - 5:30 PM

In Australia, nearly everyone recycles. Most people you ask will tell you this is the right thing to do. Newspapers, cardboard and cans are no-brainers.  But with so many different types of packaging, how do you know you’re tossing things in the right bin? When we don’t recycle, useful materials end up wasted.

[two voices talking] “Holding out for another recycle? - Mate I’ve had some close shaves in the past. - One wrong turn and that’s it. -One wrong bin and that’s it. Landfill. End of the line. -Makes you wanna puke.”

That’s a scrunched up soda can, chatting to his buddy the beer bottle in a recent recycling awareness video by the City of Sydney. Kath McLaughlin is the Resource Recovery Manager at the City of Sydney Council. She explains that the most important first step is to make sure you recycle - as much as you can.

“We’re still seeing a lot of recyclables in the garbage stream. So, really the first thing is to make sure that people are separating their recycling from their garbage.”

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics, over twenty-one million tonnes of garbage go to landfills every year. That makes Australia one of the biggest waste producers in the world. Not-for-profit Planet Ark’s annual National Recycling Week – is set up to promote the importance of recycling. Ryan Collins is their Recycling Programs Manager.

“National Recycling Week has been running for 19 years now, it was set up so that it provides an opportunity to encourage good recycling habits and raising the profile of recycling for Australians, letting them know about new recycling technologies, trends and programs.”

The amount of waste we produce is staggering. But once the truck pulls away, we don’t often think about what happens to all the stuff. Ryan Collins says we should have more awareness.

“Some councils actually do have tours of their materials recycling facility, and the public can go on tours to find out exactly what happens. My personal opinion is that everyone should visit one just to see how much waste goes through these facilities. It's amazing, it's mountains and mountains of materials, some of which gets recycled into new things, but a lot of it goes to landfill as well.”

When your recycling bin leaves the kerbside, it goes to what is known as a materials recovery facility. Here the waste goes through a factory-like process on conveyer belts. First, manual workers do their best to pick out things that cannot be recycled. From then on, it is largely an automated process. Ryan Collins explains some of the technology behind it.

“It uses fans to sort out paper, uses magnets to extract the steel, then it has scanners that use light to detect plastic, and then magnetic fields which create things called Eddy currents, which then separate the aluminium. And then at the end of it there's usually glass left over. There's a lot of technology involved, it's quite a complex process.”

Even though workers try to pick out non-recyclables, contamination is still an issue. According to Ryan Collins, one of the biggest offenders are plastic bags. 

“A quarter of the population use plastic bags to take down their recycling. Even though what's contained in those plastic bags might be recyclable, if it's in a plastic bag, it won't actually get recycled. It will be taken out by the manual workers, because plastic bags get caught up in the machinery, which causes problems.”

There are other recycling mistakes that people sometimes make. Kath McLaughlin from City of Sydney council notes that toxic products should be kept out of the recycling bin.

“Definitely when it comes to things that contain toxic type of materials, say like household batteries, definitely don't put that into recycling, because that can contaminate the system, light bulbs, that type of thing as well. It's really important to make sure that's not in the recycling bin.”

When something toxic is found in the recycling truck, the facility will try to remove it. But Ryan Collins explains that serious contamination can even cause the whole load to be sent to landfill.

“This can cause issues at the materials recycling facility, if it isn't sorted out manually, and the sorting happens so fast that not everything is going to get taken out that doesn't belong there. A load of recycling might then be contaminated and have to be sent to landfill instead of getting recycled.”

Jars and bottles are fine, but watch out for other types of glass. As little as 25 grams of oven-proof glass can contaminate a whole tonne of recyclable glass. While some materials can’t be recycled at all, others come in many types. Kath McLaughlin says it’s easy to get confused about plastics.

“When it comes to plastics that can be a tricky one, because there are so many types of plastic. So, a good rule is to think of any plastic product that's rigid and designed for a one-off use — can be recycled. So that means don’t put things in like squishy plastics, say, like the outer coverings of biscuit packaging.”

This also excludes things like bread bags, shopping bags and other types of soft plastics. Unfortunately, according to Planet Ark, Australians dispose of around three hundred thousand tonnes of soft plastics a year.

But since 2012 these items can be recycled - through a special scheme called the REDcycle Program. It features over 480 drop-off points in all cities and many regional centres.  If you collect all soft plastics at home, you can then bring them to special bins at the nearest participating supermarket. It’s easy to assume things cannot be recycled, when it fact, they can. Ryan Collins from Planet Ark says this is common with some products.

“Surprisingly one of the things that people get wrong, in fact that's over half the population, is aerosol cans. Over half think that aerosol cans can't be recycled in your kerb-side bin, when in fact they can.”

It’s also a good idea to have a recycling bin in your bathroom.

“There are a lot of products that you can recycle from the bathroom, so this is your shampoo bottles, aerosol cans, cardboard toilet rolls. They can all be recycled. Some people do have recycling bins in the bathroom, there's obviously not much space in the usual bathroom, but if you're able to separate them and then take them to your kitchen recycling bin, then that will help reduce those things going to landfill.”

No tips apply to all regions, but recycling facilities are quite consistent across council boundaries.  To find out your local requirements, it’s best to contact the council. 

Planet Ark runs a website called for easy access to this information.

And Ryan Collins has one final tip.

“One of the good mottos to have is "If in doubt, then leave it out." It's better to leave it out if you're not sure, rather than to contaminate the recycling.”