Recycling right: let’s bin the confusion

24th November 2021 | Eativity editors

Most Australians claim they’re confident about how to recycle their household waste. But while some research shows that we’re getting savvier when it comes to recycling, other studies suggest that this confidence might be a little misplaced.

According to Planet Ark, since 1996, the recycling rate in Australia has gone from seven percent and just 1.5 million total tonnes recycled to more than 60 percent and 43 million tonnes of materials recycled. Australians have gone from recycling just 80 kilograms of material each per year to now recycling about 1700 kilograms per person.

recycling bins Australia
What shameful secrets lurk within your recycling bin?

The good, the bad and the pandemic

New research from Planet Ark this year found that Australians are becoming more educated about items that cause recycling contamination issues. These include soft plastics, bagged recyclables and clothing. Nearly 1.5 million more Australians now know to keep soft plastics out of the recycling bin compared to 2019. Meanwhile, just under a million more Australians know bagged recyclables and clothing don’t get recycled through kerbside services.

However, new research from Nestlé found that while up to 86 percent of people are taking the time to look on a product’s packaging for recycling instructions, inconsistent on-pack labels are contributing to confusion in our bins. The study found that almost 90 percent of Aussies are actually putting common household items in the wrong bin.

Last year, during the height of the pandemic, the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) also found that overall kerbside recycling contamination rates went up as much as 20 percent. A large proportion of that was food scraps in pizza boxes and takeaway containers, as people were ordering more packaged home-delivered meals.

CEO of Australian recycler iQ Renew Danial Gallagher says they see the end result of our over-confidence in what can be recycled. They also see the confusion that inconsistent labels can cause when the contents of recycling bins arrive at their sorting facility.

“We see so many things come through that simply shouldn’t be there,” he says. “Recycling right is so important for the environment. And keeping our recycling streams clean helps us make the most of that opportunity.”

Greasy, cheesy pizza boxes can't be recycled.
Greasy, cheesy pizza boxes can’t be recycled. Especially if you left a slice in there.

Household recycling mistakes revealed by Nestlé

36% believe takeaway coffee cups can go in recycling bins. Most aren’t recyclable.

68% aren’t aware that aluminium foil can go into household recycling bins. You just need to scrunch pieces together to the size of a golf ball or larger.

39% don’t flatten cardboard before recycling it.

55% think used pizza boxes can be recycled. Bits covered in grease or leftover food can’t be, but the clean parts can.

37% think the Mobius loop guarantees something is recyclable.

Mobius loop recycling symbols
The Mobius loop shows that an object is capable of being recycled, not that it’s recyclable in all systems.

Labelling confusion

There are lots of recycling labels on the market. There’s “Recycle Me”, plastic resin codes and even the familiar three-arrowed Mobius loop symbol. But these don’t necessarily mean that the packaging is recyclable or tell people exactly how they can recycle it. And some recyclable products feature no recycling information at all.

Last year, ACOR called product recycling labels “a dog’s breakfast”, calling for a mandatory uniform label to be used on all Australian product packaging.

This statement followed the release of an independent national audit of recycling information on consumer products and packaging. The audit found that 88 percent of packaging components available at supermarkets, takeaway outlets and convenience stores were recyclable through either kerbside recycling or a supermarket-based return program. However, only 40 percent of these products had a recycling claim present on them.

Nestlé is calling for more companies to adopt the one labelling scheme that makes it clear: the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL). The ARL provides clear on-pack guidance on which bin to recycle in. It also provides additional instructions – such as scrunching, rinsing or flattening – to ensure the material is properly recycled.

For more on the Australasian Recycling Label, visit Planet Ark’s website.

Sott plastics recycling bin
Soft plastics need to go in specially designated soft plastic bins.

Don’t go soft on plastics

When it comes to waste and recycling confusion, plastic is right up there. New research by bread brand Helga’s has found that almost half of all bread shoppers don’t recycle their bread bags. Of the 46 percent that doesn’t recycle bread bags, 75 percent said they didn’t know they could. Among the 54 percent that does recycle, there’s still a significant amount of confusion about how to recycle. Less than half of people surveyed put bread bags in REDcycle bins – bins specially designated for soft plastic recycling.

As well as bread bags, common household shopping items that are considered soft plastics include cereal box liners, silver-lined chip and cracker packets, chocolate and snack bar wrappers, dry pet food bags, pasta and rice bags and plastic packaging that contains meat. A full list of the soft plastics you can and can’t recycle can be found here.

Overflowing recycling bins Australia
Don’t bag your recyclables. It can’t be separated and sorted for recycling and often goes to waste.

Top tips for recycling right

1. Check it before you chuck it: always look for the ARL to know which bin to recycle in.

2. Drop off soft plastics at a REDcycle collection point. To check if packaging can be recycled through REDcycle, look for the ARL symbol or the REDcycle logo. These are still being rolled out, so you can also refer to the REDcycle website. The site also allows you to search for your nearest REDcycle collection point.

3. You don’t need to wash plastic packaging before putting it in a REDcycle bin. It is important, however, that before doing so, you ensure your plastics are empty and dry.

4. Don’t bag your recyclables. Keep them loose. Flatten cardboard but don’t squash steel and aluminium cans or hard plastic bottles.

5. Clean out food containers. Scrape all solid food scraps out of jars or cans and give bottles and containers a good rinse to remove excess debris.

6. Keep out small items: anything smaller than a credit card, such as drink bottle lids, plastic bread tags or bottle tops, shouldn’t go in the recycling bin.

7. Items you can’t recycle in your kerbside bin include plastic bags; broken glassware, mirrors or glass from a photo frame; batteries; clothing and other textiles; food containers with food in them; building materials, like pieces of timber or bricks; and paper towels.

If you’re in doubt, head to Planet Ark’s Recycling Near You website. This allows you to find out about what you can and can’t recycle in your household recycling services. You can also search for drop-off locations to recycle a wide range of items, including electronic waste, batteries, printer cartridges, whitegoods and furniture.