Sorting out recycling bins


By Zoe Watkins, MRA Consulting Group

During National Recycling Week, Zoe Watkins looks at the complexities of the yellow-lidded recycling bin for those outside of the waste industry.

Why does it seem to require expert knowledge of the waste management sector to understand the yellow kerbside recycling bin?

The standard materials widely accepted in yellow-lidded recycling bins are paper and cardboard, glass, aluminium and steel cans and plastic containers (PET, HDPE, PP and PVC). However items accepted are inconsistent across council areas and that leads to confusion.

Of New South Wales’ 128 councils, there are still 18 that do not offer a recycling bin.

Since joining MRA Consulting Group I have become more aware of the problems and inconsistencies in the system across councils and states.

Plastics are separated into many different material categories including polypropylene, polystyrene, LDPE, single use plastic bags, non-container packaging, and hard plastics (eg plant pots). Some of these are accepted in the yellow recycling bins in some council areas, but not all.

It makes no sense to use the plastic polymer type as the determining factor in whether something is recyclable or not. Most people do not have degrees in polymer design. Show them two plastic items and they would not know the difference. Nor should they need to.

Without information available explaining the different types of plastic and if they are accepted in your bin, how are you supposed to know what you can and can’t recycle?

The Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) is a good reform but it only appears on about 60 per cent of materials from Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) members and on no packaging from providers who are not APCO members.

Then we have council education programs which are sporadic and individual. Wouldn’t it be easier to have one uniform list of acceptable materials, available to all local councils to push out a consistent and sustained education campaign?

Another confusing product is liquid paper board (LPB), commonly referred to as beverage carton. LPB is typically a sheet of cardboard sandwiched between two layers of polypropylene or foil, to create a hybrid cardboard material, strong enough to hold liquid. Items such as juice boxes/poppers, milk/stock cartons are made from this material.

While it contains fibre (cardboard), which is accepted in the yellow recycling bin, it also contains plastic and foil. Consequently, paper mills don’t like it. In NSW, 91 councils allow LPB in the recycling bin, but 110 do not. If we want LPB in the bins we need to reach an arrangement with paper mills so they can accept it or pay the MRFs to separate it out. That means more costs to ratepayers.

What about pizza boxes? A pizza box is cardboard, so most people think they should be recycled. That is correct, but some councils don’t allow them because of the risk of food contamination. So yes, it should be allowed, but only when clean.

Batteries? Batteries are 100 per cent recyclable but not through the yellow-lid bin. The risk of fire is too high. So, it’s baffling that six of 110 councils in NSW allow them in the yellow-lid bin.

What about scrunched up aluminium foil? Allowed or not. There are no clear rules between councils. And as for coffee cups,  in NSW, six councils allow coffee cups in the yellow-lid bin but 110 don’t

These are just a few of the day-to-day confusions relating to recycling. It is not surprising therefore that contamination rates in yellow-lidded bins are about 10 per cent compared to 2 per cent in food and garden organics bins where what’s included and what’s excluded is much clearer.

There is no agreed list of acceptable materials in recycling bins around each state, or the country despite several projects, including Australian Council of Recycling’s project yellow which has not been taken up by councils and APCO’s ARL which is not linked to council decisions or MRF contracts.

I don’t want to get a PhD in product design just to be able to recycle properly. I do want the councils, states and the packaging industry to agree to a list.



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