Contamination in recycling: Where’s the confusion?


June 13, 2018


We’re waging a #waroncontamination to get Australia’s kerbside recycling to a higher quality to ensure it can be recovered as a valuable commodity. Our How rubbish are you at recycling quiz ran across all our social media channels to gain insight on how Australians are recycling wrong.

Here’s what we discovered:

  • Strong interest in recycling education. Almost 1,500 social media followers viewed our quiz and 800 took the time to complete all 10 questions. Our Facebook post was well engaged with many conversations, comments and shares.
  • Eco-champs are recycling right. 84% of quiz-takers got more than 8 questions correct and 38% scored a perfect 10/10.
  • Basics of contamination are understood. Questions around the common items of contamination like bagged recycling, food scraps and used nappies received the most correct answers but quiz-takers stumbled on the more complex questions around the different types of materials and how to treat them for recycling.

Where’s the confusion around recycling?

Are all plastic bags considered contamination, even biodegradable ones?

The jury is out on whether biodegradable plastic bags are a preferable alternative to regular plastics bags as evidence is inconclusive about how long they take to break down.

What we do know is, all types of plastic bags, whether biodegradable or not, are considered contamination as they can get tangled in sorting machinery at Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) causing inaccuracies with the sorting technology and delays when parts need to be cleaned, repaired or replaced.

From 1 July 2018, Western Australia will ban all lightweight plastic shopping bags in line with South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and Australian Capital Territory. Queensland and Victoria have also announced the intention to introduce a ban.

If a plastic item can be scrunched into a ball, is it accepted in the kerbside bin?

How can you tell the difference between rigid and soft plastic? The scrunch test, as it is commonly known, is a good way to see if a plastic item belongs in the kerbside recycling bin.

If a plastic item can be scrunched into a ball with your hand, it’s likely to be soft plastic and should not be recycled in the kerbside bin. Rigid plastics, like PET, do not scrunch easily in your hand and are more likely to crack instead of being shaped into a ball. These rigid plastics can be recycled in the kerbside bin.

Can broken crockery be recycled together with glass?

Broken crockery and tempered cookware glass like Pyrex cannot be sorted through the MRF and should be kept out of the kerbside recycling bin. Crockery made from chinaware are also not accepted in the kerbside bin and should go in general waste instead.

Empty and unbroken glass bottles and containers are acceptable material for the kerbside bin. It’s true that glass can break during collection, but the pieces are likely to be large, making it easy to sort at MRFs.

Does a garden hose belong in the recycling bin?

Garden hoses, Christmas lights, cables, and similar wire types are not recyclable through the kerbside bin. All types of extended wires, cables, and coat hangers should not enter the MRF regardless of the material. Because of how the machine is designed, cables and wires risk getting tangled up between gears and other moving parts which can clog the machine and cause damage.

Does it matter how aluminium foil is collected for recycling?

Small pieces of aluminium foil such as Easter egg wrappers are very light, and too small to sort and recycle on their own. By collecting smaller pieces into a ball at least the size of a ping pong or golf ball, machines are able to effectively sort the aluminium foil from other recyclables.

The way forward

While most people are Eco-champs when it comes to the basics of recycling, contamination continues to be a big risk to our kerbside recycling system. Increasing education, and encouraging others to do the right thing, can go a long way to ensuring our recycling doesn’t go to waste.

According to Planet Ark, almost half of all Australians are confused about what can and cannot be recycled because of:

  • Improvements in technology over the years resulting in an evolving list of what is and isn’t recyclable
  • Different kerbside recycling practices across councils
  • Different recycling practices at home, work, and in public spaces
  • Lack of understanding over the types of materials that products are made of

The good news is that councils and organisations such as the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) are working towards improving public education and encouraging uniform resource recovery policies at a national level.

Cleanaway passionately believes in standardising kerbside bin inclusions and we advocate for a systematic waste management approach nationwide to help overcome confusion at the bin and to make kerbside recycling simpler for residents.

Download our General Waste and Commingled bin stickers, for use in the office, apartments, or any location where there is confusion around the recycling bin.

Contact us today to find out more about how you can help keep contamination out of kerbside recycling.