It’s no secret that we’ve become a wasteful society. Consumerism, convenience and keeping up with the Joneses mean that Australians create 2 tonnes of waste per year . With knowledge though, comes power – the power to make a change. The ABC’s War On Waste program is the latest in the effort to make Australians aware of just how much waste we produce, and how to dispose of waste better.
Host Craig Reucassel, formerly of The Chaser fame, aims to get Australians thinking by putting the evidence of our excess on display. He shows us how much food we waste every year, the amount of fresh produce thrown out for not meeting ridiculous cosmetic standards and just how much plastic we are throwing into landfill.
It’s a novel way to make a point but has it helped or hindered?
The morning after episode three, I was at a pilates class and like many places around Australia, War On Waste was the water cooler conversation. There was shock at the scale of our fast-fashion problem, frustration at the attitudes of fast-fashion consumers and abject horror at the realisation that our paper coffee cups and plastic cutlery aren’t really recyclable.
At least for now, the show seems to have ignited everyone’s best intentions, my own included. Australians were vowing to do better and waste less. As we do in this digital age, I hit Google looking to educate myself on where my waste belongs. If I was shocked by what Craig Reucassel showed me, I was even more shocked by the information on my local council website.
All the knowledge I thought I had about recyclables was, I realised, assumptions. Just as I had never checked if my disposable coffee cups could be recycled, I never thought twice about throwing in a bit of paper towel. I classified both as paper. Had others shared my own blind beliefs on recyclables? How can I find out?
I created a simple survey on Survey Monkey and shared it with my Facebook friends asking Do you believe the following can be recycled in your yellow recycling bin? Afterall, I was wondering if people like me had made the same assumptions as me. The results?
As I watched the responses come in, I looked further into what can and cannot be recycled, and the single most important lesson for those wanting to know what they can recycle in their yellow bin is to check your local council guidelines. If your council doesn’t have specific guidelines (and many don’t) then check with your local Resource Recovery Centre/Materials Recovery Centre. These are the businesses that process or dispose of the waste.
Whilst generally it is true that coffee cups cannot be recycled, as War On Waste showed, councils including Darebin and Lismore specify in their guidelines that they can recycle these. Another council accepted plastic bags in the yellow bin where most don’t. The program also stated that plastic cutlery cannot be recycled because it can get caught in the machinery however the Resource Recovery Centres I contacted in my area confirmed that they CAN process disposable plasticware, so it’s important to check.
Even once you’ve checked with the council or your Resource Recovery Centre, don’t forget to check the packaging.
As I wandered through Coles over the weekend my recycling confusion was compounded. Coles brand plastic plates, cutlery, napkins and baking paper all had the recycling triangle. ‘PLEASE RECYCLE’ it asks politely. But was it the packaging or the product that was recyclable? Sorbent specifies on the bottom of it’s tissue boxes that it is only the package that is recyclable with no recycling symbol where Coles brand simply says ‘PLEASE RECYCLE’. Multix baking paper states ‘recyclable cardboard carton and core’.
This isn’t a dig at Coles, although it would be fantastic if a massive company making such in roads to reducing waste through initiatives such as the Redcycle could have clearer information on their packaging, but more a comment on how easy it is to be confused despite a plethora of information.
Another issue I stumbled across is the understanding surrounding biodegradeable products. If you can’t recycle it, and you don’t want to waste it, biodegradable seems like the better option. The problem here, I have learnt, is that while biodegradable products do break down quicker than standard plastic or paper, this often only occurs with the right mix of circumstances. The right combination of oxygen, light, temperature and humidity all play a part in breaking down these products and your local dump is unlikely to provide it. So those biodegradable forks from your kid’s birthday party on the weekend aren’t necessarily as environmentally friendly as you think they are.
But back to that survey. What is the truth?
It was only over the weekend that I had a chance to watch the first two episodes of the War On Waste to find that the questions I asked of my social circle were discussed in episode two. The responses to my survey show that plenty of people I know either didn’t see the program or didn’t remember these points and indeed have made the same assumptions I have.
These answers below are the most common based on reading information across a range of NSW council websites. Always check with your local council or Resource Recovery Centre if you want to be certain you’re doing the right thing.
Unused and used paper towel – NO
Given that almost 86% of people believed you could recycle paper towel, this is a big one. Used paper towel can often have food residue which makes it contaminated. Aside from that, as Bankstown Council’s website explains:
Paper towels are made out of ‘wet-strength paper’ meaning they are designed not to break down in water so that they fulfil their purpose of absorbing liquid. This means that they don’t easily break down in the paper recycling process. Put paper towel in the red bin.
Shredded paper – NO
Another shock here. state that shredded paper often doesn’t get picked up by the machines and ends up in the wrong place, or can clog the machine and require manual removal. It can be used in small amounts in your compost though. Zero Waste South Australia suggest that putting shredded paper in a larger paper bag to recycle may help, but check with your council first.
Aerosol cans – YES
I was shocked by this. The warnings that they are flammable and not to puncture the can equated to ‘bad’ in my head so I always threw them in the bin. But aerosol cans are made of steel or aluminium and therefore can go in your yellow bin.
Butane Cans – YES
As an avid camper, I have always wondered how to dispose of these. In my long list of assumptions, I lumped these in with gas bottles and the like so was pleasantly surprised that these can be disposed of easily.
Pizza boxes – YES
All websites I found said pizza boxes can be recycled but that food scraps need to be removed, thus the perforation between the base and the lid these days.
Newspapers – YES
Something we could actually be certain on!
Drinking glasses and Mirrors – NO
I have to admit I am guilty of placing broken glasses into the recycling bin but this is a big no-no. You also cannot recycle glass storage containers. Only glass from food jars and drinks can be recycled. The reason? Household glass melts at a different temperature to that of glass food containers.
Washed plastic plates and cups – CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL COUNCIL
Many councils say no. Hornsby Council in Sydney specifies that these should be placed in your red bin while. Lake Macquarie City Council outsource their recycling to Hunter Resource Recovery who do accept these.
Understanding the recycling process will help understand why these items are/aren’t recycling.
Did you know your recyclables or are you shocked too?
The War On Waste program alone won’t solve our waste problem but hopefully it will make anyone who sees it more aware of the amount they’re producing and what is happening to it. Our actions today will have consequences tomorrow even if we don’t see them.
If, like me, you’ve been putting the wrong materials in your recycle bin, share this post. Hopefully you can help someone else improve the way they dispose of their waste.