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Recycling is not the solution, but we can't abandon it yet

Last Monday night Four Corners reported on Australia's supposedly unravelling recycling and waste sector in their episode aptly named 'Trashed.' It left many people wondering if we should bother recycling.

Recycling is not the solution, but we can't abandon it yet

This is last weeks recycling. I was inspired by fellow zero waste blogger Lindsay who back in April let us peek into her recycling. While she provided a month's worth, I thought it best to stick to a week. If I committed to a month, I'm not sure i'd remember to photograph it! I walked out of a cafe the other week without our babies pram, only the baby. Just an example of where my brain is at for you all. I had intended this post to follow the format of Lindsay's, but with the recent recycling industry scandals it's morphed into something different. But first, let's have a look at what I added to the yellow bin:

  • Two pizza boxes – We rarely ate takeaway before baby arrived. Oh how sleep deprivation changed that. They make the BEST vegan pizza. 
  • Postal satchel – I bought my son extra nappies from a Facebook Buy, Swap, Sell. I had asked for a paper satchel...
  • Foil – My mother-in-law dropped off cabbage rolls on a plate, wrapped in foil. 
  • Scraps of paper – I write shopping lists and dinner schedules on the back of envelopes my husband’s work receives. 
  • Toilet roll and packaging – WGAC and Pure Planet toilet paper.

The story ran by Four Corners has been one of many exposes into the recycling industry over the last few months. In July a fire broke out at a recycling facility in North Melbourne. Cardboard, paper, plastic, glass and aluminium that had been stockpiling went up in flames, sending debris from the fire across the metropolitan region. City residents, especially those with children, were advised to stay inside. Homes close to the fire were evacuated, with some residents ending up in hospital due to respiratory issues. My husband told me that it smelt horrible and could taste chemicals at the back of his throat. This was the fourth fire at the facility in the past year, with many questioning if the blaze was an accident or a way to deal with the stockpiled recycling. Prior to the fire I had heard rumours of companies stockpiling recycling here in Victoria, but not at the amount Four Corners uncovered.

The zero waste philosophy puts recycling as a last resort. It's not a system that works well enough for us to rely on it. It has become a bandaid, masking a rather horrible reality. It's also a business, the value of materials dropped into those yellow bins each fortnight is driven by market prices. If the value is low, it won't be recycled right away like most Australians think.

Let's take a look at the most common materials recycled. Recycling aluminium is 95% more efficient than using virgin aluminium. Metals have always had high market value. Recycling plastic is 85% more efficient, but China who have previously taken most of it, is no longer wanting to buy our plastic to recycle. This is mix of low oil prices and the plastic we recycle is not to a high enough standard or sorted properly. Paper is 50% more efficient, but can only be recycled up to seven-eight times. Lastly, recycling glass is 40% more efficient.

Four Corners obtained a report suggesting that in NSW glass recycling might need to stop. Too much of it is being stockpiled, obviously waiting for its market value to increase. This may have sounded alarming, but they did not explain how it could be fixed. The obvious would be to cut back on our glass consumption by encouraging reusing and refilling by businesses. Another option is changing how glass is collected for recycling. Preferably glass should be sorted by colour and intact. It's easier to recycle glass this way. Our glass is mostly commingled and broken. If done right, recycling can work well enough to recover resources. Due to the low prices for recycled materials vs raw materials, waste recovery businesses don't want to invest in the infrastructure to set these systems up. 

Recycling is not the solution, yet we can't abandon it. If we removed it or halted materials like glass from the recycling process, there would be HUGE leap in valuable resources dumped into landfill. I could only foresee a domino effect happening. Any confidence in waste recovery would be lost and people might stop trying to keep resources out of landfill by any means. Recycling is not perfect, but it's much smarter option than landfill.

So back to the issue; should we continue recycling if the industry is in such disarray? My answer is a loud YES! Please keep recycling, but continue to use it as a last resort. To me, I see recycling as a necessary bridge we have to use until a new direction is built. Learn the correct way to recycle in your council area. Each council and State deal with their recycling differently. Last nights episode only focused on a small part of the recycling industry. There are places in Australia that are doing it right. There are good people in the recycling industry. Truly!

When I'm invited to give talks on reducing waste, part of the discussion covers recycling. I encourage people to look at their recycling bin as much as I do for their landfill rubbish. Understanding how a system works, especially a flawed system, will give the extra boost to make changes. Part of recycling smarter is using less resources at the start that require recycling. Less new packaging, more reusing.

But until reusing is the social normal everywhere, there are other ways we can improve the recycling system. Below are a couple of ideas, but i'd love to hear yours too.

Write, email and call State and Federal Members of Parliament

The recycling industry clearly needs regulation. Tell them we want to make it mandatory that a certain percentage of our packaging requires Australian recycled materials. Businesses could be given financial incentives from the government for choosing recycled products over non recycled. If you have more ideas, tell them! Don't think your voice does not matter, it does.

Try to refuse, reduce and reuse

We are recycling more and more, yet our buying habits have not decreased. What we need is more focus on refusing, reducing and reusing. Less consumption = less recycling. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cutlery, plastic takeaway containers can all be replaced with reusables.

As you can see from the contents of our recycling, we can improve on the refuse, reduce and reuse. We'll admit to buying items in glass as well, especially beer and the odd stir fry sauce (more so now with a baby...). The Builder is going to save up a keg of beer from Kegs on Legs and we'll make more of an effort to cook sauces from scratch and freeze. Instead of getting takeaway, we have decided to try planning dinner a little earlier, and walk to the pizza store on days that neither of us feel like cooking. The emphasis is on try. I'm well aware life happens, some choices are easier than others and everyones lives are different. Refuse plastic packaging, buy in bulk where you can and don't forget the reusables. We can all look in our recycling bins and see what we can all try to do differently.

Support companies that reuse and refill

There is a growing number of companies that champion the refill revolution! Responsible Cafes will help you find venues that encourage the reuse of coffee cups. TAP. Wines in Melbourne are installing wine on tap in restaurants, saving MANY glass bottles from going to recycling. St. David's Dairy is now offering drive through milk refills. The Vegan Dairy will take back glass jars for reuse. Zero Waste Beauty is also offering a glass return program.

Speak up

If you want more of these types of service, speak up. Plant a seed. Drop an email to a company that you think could offer a refill and reuse service. We need more places to offer refill and reuse options if we want to break free from our reliance on recycling.

Support bans on single use plastics (eg. bags, straws, single-use plastic takeaway) and cash for container schemes

Search for groups in your area that are working on these campaigns or start one up. Jump into a zero waste Facebook community to find one or ask your local council.


While the show did not offer any advice on what we can do as citizens, I did appreciate that it shifted responsibility to those at fault. Consumers shoulder too much responsibility when it comes to doing the right thing. We can't blame ourselves for this if we've been led to believe that everything going into our recycling bins is taken care of responsibly. We can control what goes into our bins, but we have no control once the contents is picked up by the trucks. But that doesn't mean we don't have a role to play. With knowledge comes caring, from caring comes change.

How did you feel after watching Four Corners 'Trashed' program? Were you angry? Disappointed? What other ways can we as citizens help create change? I'd love to know of other businesses that refill in your area too. Share away :)

5 comments

  1. Felt sick to my stomach watching it and have been telling others about it too. Have also been saying refuse, reuse and rot. I think a plastic bag ban HAS TO be passed. Once that happens l think people will start thinking more about waste.

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  2. I felt disheartened. I feel like I am making all these efforts personally and then to see this was such a rough moment.
    On the plus side, it's making me look less like a fringe dweller and more like someone who was ahead of the curve when it comes to these conversations.
    I just hope it results in change as the expose revealed a pretty shocking state of affairs in the industry...

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  3. I just read in the Winter 2017 issue of Earth Garden magazine that it has been discovered that wax worms (the larvae of wax moths) can eat polyethylene bags. Apparently, bees wax and polyethylene have a similar chemical structure and scientists believe an enzyme in the worms converts the plastic to ethylene glycol, which is a chemical used to make polyester and anti-freeze. Not sure if this is good or bad. Wax moths are considered a pest by honey producers. I also read a similar article on the National Geographic site where one commentator was quoted as saying that using wax worms to dispose of plastic is 'throwing away money'. Funny, but I don't see the ownership of a lot of plastic as worth a lot of money in Australia right now so I don't agree with him.

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  4. My sister put me onto your blog recently and after seeing that report on Four Corners it really hit home how important your message is about refusing plastic and other waste products.

    I remember that as a child in the '70s and early '80s in Melbourne, Mum and Dad used to return the glass soft drink bottles to the supermarket. The supermarket would pay something like 5 cents per bottle, which in those days would buy you a handful of small chewing gum from a gum dispenser. This was before plastic bottles were made. Just about all liquids came in glass or cans. The supermarkets would send the bottles to be washed and reused. This is cheaper and less energy intensive than melting down glass.

    I can't help thinking that their needs to be a tariff on cheap imported glass to even the playing field for those who produce recycled glass in Australia.

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  5. Sorry, this is turning into a bit of a long rant but I also remember the Milk man delivering glass bottles of milk with aluminium tops on them to our front porch in the mornings. Once the milk was consumed, Mum would put the empty bottles back out on the porch for him to collect. They would be washed and reused. We pierced the bottle tops with a threaded needle and hung them on a pine tree at Christmas time where they sparkled in the sun as outdoor ornaments.
    OK. That's enough of my reminiscences! Thanks for your blog!

    ReplyDelete

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