How To Recycle Properly (TBH You're Probably Doing It Wrong)

22/09/2015 5:44 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Paper, plastic and compost recycling bins in a row

Recycling anxiety: the feeling of panic when you get to the bin and have no idea what goes where.

Sure, there's the obvious stuff -- that scrap piece of A4 is clearly going to go in with paper -- but what about your plastic takeaway fork?

Turns out recycling is more difficult than we think, and many of us -- despite our best efforts -- simply aren't doing it right.

Chief Executive of Clean Up Australia, Terrie-Ann Johnson, says one of the most common mistakes people make is failing to separate their packaging.

"For example, your takeaway coffee cup will most likely have a paper bottom and a plastic top, but people will put the whole lot in the one recycling bin," Johnson told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Of course, it depends on what sort of recycling system is in place. If it's co-mingled, it doesn’t matter -- plastic, paper and metal can all go together. But there is lots of inconsistency between councils and how each operate."

takeaway coffee cup


Yep -- you read that right. Different councils require different things, meaning depending on where you live and work the way you recycle at the office could be completely different to what you do at home.

"My office is in the City of Sydney and the council takes co-mingles with paper in it," Johnson said.

"Whereas at my home in Leichhardt you have to separate the paper out. Of course it's confusing because it appears you are doing the right thing."

Which brings us to the next question -- why isn't there one universal rule or system that standardises the recycling process?

Wouldn't that be easier for everyone? (short answer: YES.)

"That would be ideal," Johnson said. "But the issue comes down to the waste management contractor and the fact not all councils use the same. Each of them is geared up slightly differently, which is where things get confusing."

Luckily for Victorians, there's an app called Sustain Me which is designed to make recycling easier by outlining what each council accepts and what it doesn’t. Sadly, a similar app doesn't yet exist for the other states and territories (business opportunity, anyone?)

Adding to the confusion is the fact that waste management is a matter for state legislation -- not federal -- meaning different parts of the country have different policies in place.

"We've had a crusade for over 10 years to get plastic bags banned and we've been successful in South Australia, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Tasmania, "Johnson said.

"We are working with New South Wales and Queensland on bringing in similar sorts of bans. The frustrating thing is we can’t do this at a federal level -- we have to go state by state."

plastic bag


Johnson is also vocal about her efforts to encourage the packaging industry to stop creating cocktails of materials for every product.

"The other day, I saw this packaging for razor blades for women," Johnson said. "The back was recyclable plastic, then on the inside there was a paper lining, then the packaging for actual blades themselves was not recyclable plastic."

"It's ridiculous. No one is going to stand there and pull all that apart. We have to make it really simple for people."

Feeling guilty? Here's how to improve your recycling game.

"It really starts with reduce. Don’t actually buy your coffee in takeaway cup. See if your local will allow you to take in your own," said Johnson.

"You don’t use takeaway coffee cups at home. I know people say, 'but I buy them on the way into the office' -- if you're a woman, chances are you have a handbag. You can throw a cup in a handbag.

"I think it's nicer to have your coffee out of a real cup anyway."

At the supermarket, avoid things such as pre-packaged fresh fruit (one of Johnson's personal bugbears).

"You see it all the time -- six apples sitting on a polystyrene tray wrapped in plastic. That's a whopping amount of packaging for fresh fruit," Johnson said.

packaged fruit

Bad again.

She also advises if bringing your lunch in from home to consider whether it really needs to be shrouded in cling wrap (a reusable container is better) and urges people to pay attention to all the different sorts of material you get when you order a takeaway lunch -- from the paper serviette to the (non-recyclable) plastic fork.

If your container has a triangle symbol, it's good to go in the plastic bin, and if your favourite take away joint happens to be really fancy and gives you bamboo anything -- it needs to go in paper, not recycling or green waste.

Alternatively, if you're looking to make a quick buck, maybe just hold onto it all until your state brings in a container deposit scheme (unless you live in the Northern Territory or South Australia, in which you can cash in right now).

"It's already been very successful in the Northern Territory, and we'll have a similar system that will be launched in New South Wales in 2017," Johnson said.

"Victoria has buried its head in the sand but won't be able to much longer because we are going to attack them.

"If we can get that in, certainly these containers -- bottles and cans -- are no longer rubbish. They are worth money, and people collect them. They disappear off the streets and the beaches -- it's quite extraordinary."

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