Recycling your waste is one of the easiest ways to feel good about your contribution to a sustainable environment, so it’s no wonder that 98% of households in Australia partake in recycling.
It’s also unsurprising that three out of four Aussie businesses think the public will view them favourably if they engage in good waste management practices, such as recycling.
But just plopping down a recycling bin doesn’t mean you are actually doing your bit for the environment. There are plenty of ways to screw this up, especially in the office, where people just seem to toss their trash around randomly with no regard to its composition.
Generally speaking, recycling in Australia is easy, because we don’t have to separate at the source. Instead, in most councils everything that can be recycled goes into one handy bin, and gets shipped off to a materials recovery facility, where a range of technologies - from manual labour to magnets and even lasers - sort the materials into respective piles.
The bane of this process is contamination, when non-recyclable materials end up in the waste stream and have to be filtered out. In a worst-case scenario, such contamination can send a whole truck of recyclable garbage to landfill, especially if you’ve thrown something toxic like an AA battery in there (why?).
Even if you’re a careful recycler, chances are you’ve committed one or more of the recycling crimes below - or have seen your co-workers do it.
And similar food waste. Sure, a banana makes an excellent desk snack - it comes in biodegradable packaging, is low GI, contains heaps of potassium that’s good for maintaining normal blood pressure, and so on. But once you’re done with your banana, please watch where you put the peel.
Yes, they’re made out of paper. No, they usually can’t go into the paper recycling bin. This is because paper towels are produced using a method that improves the “wet strength” of the paper. Typically water breaks up the hydrogen bonds holding together cellulose fibres in the paper; the addition of certain chemicals can improve this, causing the paper to hold together better. This is why a paper towel doesn’t melt in your hands - but it’s also why the fibres are then much harder to recycle, so typically have to be put in the trash or organic waste, unless your council is an exception.
Sure, you came to work sick, just blew your nose, and the nearest bin just happens to be the office paper recycling bin. However, tissues, just like paper towels, cannot be recycled. The added problem of nasal discharge would disqualify them even if they weren’t treated with wet-strength chemicals. Meanwhile, tissue boxes and the cardboard rolls that paper towel comes on can be recycled.
Paper coffee cups
Disposable coffee cups are usually treated with a waterproof coating inside, which disqualifies them from being pulped and mixed up into cellulose that can give birth to new paper cups. Same goes for those cups marked biodegradable - it usually just means they have an additive that helps break them up in the landfill.
Crinkly food packets
Or any food wrappers, really. Unless it’s cardboard, leave it out of recycling - there’s no materials recovery process that can separate and recycle the composite plastic wrapper from your afternoon chocolate boost or sneaky packet of crisps.
Spent tea bags
You wouldn’t put coffee grounds in the recycling, would you?
This one’s a huge no-no, because a plastic bag can actually get tangled and cause damage to machinery in the materials recovery facility. There are some councils in Australia that allow for plastic bag recycling, but you need to check first. Also, if you put a bunch of recyclables in a plastic bag and then toss that in the recycling, the people who are at the first stage of sorting at the facility will just grab the bag and toss it in the garbage destined for landfill - they don’t have time to unpackage the stuff.
As a side note, plastic bags actually can be recycled - there's even a dedicated collection program called REDcycle.
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Editor's note: This article was amended on 3 May to reflect that some councils in Australia do accept empty plastic bags in curbside recycling.