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How to Recycle Properly: What You Should and Shouldn’t Be Putting In The Recycle Bin

How to Recycle Properly: What You Should and Shouldn't Be Putting In The Recycle Bin
Kate A. McLennan
Written by Kate A. McLennan

Brisbane, Australia: While we should all be aiming for a ‘zero waste’ home, the way that we use our home recycle bins has a large contribution to our impact on the planet. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about recycling, and this leads to a decrease in the efficiency of our national recycle effort.

Each week, we put bins out the front of our house and the contents are taken away, never to be seen again. Many leave it at that, but have you ever stopped to wonder about what happens to your recyclable items once they leave your kerbside? Where do they go? What happens to them? For many, the knowledge surrounding recycle bins is limited to when it should be placed on the kerb, but for those conscious about reducing impact, how well you recycle is important.

Initially, once the contents leave your kerbside it is taken to a recycling plant known as an MRF (Material Recovery Facility) and everything from the truck is emptied onto a conveyor belt. At this point workers remove contaminants from the belt before the process is continued.

If a recycle bin is contaminated it means the entire bin might be thrown into landfill rather than be recycled. Credit- NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

If there is a gross contamination to the goods this is removed before the process is continued. Even if one house from the entire truckload contains contaminated recyclables, this can, in some cases, lead to the entire load being un-recyclable, meaning it will go straight to landfill.

Following the removal of contaminations, the items are screened in several different ways before they are grouped together and sent away to be manufactured into new materials and goods. The process is intricate, and there are many things done by the public that affect the quality of recycled items. 

There are a variety of common mistakes when it comes to recycling, these are the top three:

1. Putting plastic bags and soft plastics in the recycle bin.

First of all, the use of plastics bags is completely unnecessary, if you are still using them you should consider the switch to reusable bags. But if for some reason you are still using them, if you put recycled items into plastic bags, they will end up going straight to landfill. The conveyor belt at recycling plants are manned by humans, and they simply don’t have the time to take items out of the bags.

Soft plastics are not to be thrown in kerbside recycling bins. They require a special type of recycling through REDcycle

Soft plastics, which include plastics from bread packets, cannot be put into recycle bins because they get stuck in the belts. However, these items are recyclable! REDcycle (which offer recycle bins that can be found in select Coles and Woolworths stores) allow you to drop off your soft plastics. There is a long list of items that can be placed in these bins, but the main soft plastics items that be recycled (those that can be scrunched into a ball really) are bread bags, chocolate wrappers, and chip bags to name a few.

2. Putting recyclable items into the garbage bin.

The items simply go straight to landfill. Do your due diligence. Be conscious. Think. And if you are the eco-conscious one in a shared household, remind your housemates about the importance of recycling and teach them how to make best use of the recycle bin.

An aerial view of a recycling plant

3. Food and residue contamination.

Many people don’t wash out their items and this causes large problems at recycling plants. If you leave milk in the bottom of the carton this will end up spreading to other items. Contaminated items that end up being reused reduce the quality of recycled products. Before putting items into the bin, rinse them out and remove the lid.

Another common recycling problem is that many people aren’t sure what they can and cannot recycle.

As a general rule, the following items are acceptable:

    • Cardboard including newspapers, paper, magazines
    • Glass bottles and jars
    • Plastic containers ie. milk, ice-cream, margarine and yoghurt.
    • Aluminium ie. soft drink cans and foil trays, and steel cans.

Newspapers and magazines can be recycled

But, with any rule, there are exceptions and each item should be checked to make sure it is recyclable. Often there is an icon on the packaging – a triangular arrow with a number at its centre – which indicates whether or not it is suitable and then it must be crossed off with your local council to confirm whether that type of plastic is in fact an item accepted for kerbside recycling. If there is no icon, a quick Google search is also a good way to find out. 

There are items that people think are recyclable, but actually aren’t. Make sure you don’t recycle the following items:

No matter how pretty, takeaway coffee cups are disposable and cannot be recycled by most municipalities

No matter how pretty, takeaway coffee cups are disposable and cannot be recycled.

1. Takeaway coffee cups.

If you are still using disposable coffee cups and haven’t yet transitioned to a Keep Cup or similar, you really should consider making the change. Takeaway cups have a thin layer of plastic on the inside, used to keep the drink warm – (gross) – and for this reason they can’t be recycled.

2. Takeaway paper containers.

When eating out, consider dining in and requesting a plate as they are washed up instead of being thrown out. Avoid takeaways options where waste is inevitable ie. McDonalds, KFC etc where excessive paper and cardboard materials are used. Grease and food particles present in these containers contaminate the other materials that are going to be recycled.

Instead of eating out, eat in and avoid cardboard packaging that cannot be recycled due to contaminants and will just go straight to landfill

3. Styrofoam.

First of all, this material should be avoided at all costs. Not only is it non-recyclable but it does not biodegrade. This material is usually used to make cups, packing peanuts, and some food containers.

4. Napkins / Paper Towels:

If you are still using disposable napkins and paper towels, you really should consider making the change to fabric ones that can be reused. These items are considered too contaminated to recycle.

5. Certain glass items.

As said above, glass jars can be recycled. But there are other types of glass that can’t be, and these are classified as glass items with higher melting points. Common glass items that may not be recycled are Pyrex baking dishes, light bulbs, window glass, eyeglasses, glass art. Check with your municipality if they accept these items for recycling.

Depending on your council recycling requirements, eyeglasses and eyewear may not be recycled

6. Cardboard milk containers (some).

These are the containers that many long-life milks from the traditional supermarket come in. While they are mostly made from paper, similar to takeaway coffee cups, they generally have an ultra-thin plastic coating of low-density polyethylene on the inside which means they can’t be recycled.

7. Shredded paper.

Due to its fine nature it causes difficulty at the recycling plant and can potentially clog the machinery. Instead, this can be added to a compost pile or used for other office purposes.

Shredded paper may not be recycled

10 key takeaways about recycling:

  1. Never put your recyclable items in plastic bags, they will end up in landfill.
  2. Avoid contamination; always rinse items and remove lids from bottles, and jars. In some cases, if a whole load of recyclables is contained the items will end up in landfill.
  3. Takeaway coffee cups cannot be recycled, invest in a reusable coffee cup. 
  4. Always recycle empty deodorant cans.
  5. Research your nearest REDcycle bin (at Coles and Woolworths store) and drop of your soft plastics when you do your groceries.
  6. Never put e-waste (printer cartridges, mobile phones, batteries, televisions, computers and appliances) into household bins, find a suitable drop-off location.
  7. Never put garden waste into the recycle bin.
  8. Don’t put nappies into recycle bins – (gross) – yet 11 percent of people believe that they are recyclable which is why I make mention of it.
  9. Make a habit of double checking your recyclables before putting them into the bin and checking in with your housemates to ensure you’re all on the same page.
  10. If you aren’t sure on a particular item, perform a quick Google search or check with your local municipality.

Aside from traditional recycling of used packaging, there is also an abundance of second life options for many used goods that you have lying around the house. Instead of sending items straight to landfill research on the internet to find if your item could have a second life.

While it’s important to recycle, it is more important to make sure you are putting the correct items into the correct bins. Recycling is extremely important for the environment, and doing your part to make sure you are recycling as effectively as possible is crucial.

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About the author

Kate A. McLennan

Kate A. McLennan

Kate A. McLennan is a Brisbane-based freelance marketing consultant with a passion for green business. She loves learning and writing about topics that more people need to know about. When she isn’t busy working or writing, she can be found reading a good book, OP shopping, drinking coffee, or exploring nature.

3 Comments

  • Perhaps it’s dofferent state to state,
    But I was told by my council that where I live, disposable coffee cups are perfectly fine in the recycling. I was told that as long as they were able to recycle milk cartons, they could recycle the cups as they’re made from very similar material. Now I’m worried my information has been wrong.

    • Hi Rebeckah, if your council has advised that they can recycle then that’s ok, no reason not to take their word for it (unless there was an expose and it was found that the recycling plant they use sent all cups to landfill?! These things can happen…) Actually, there are many councils that use recycling facilities that have the capability to separate the plastic lining from the cardboard in a takeaway coffee up. It’s always difficult when travelling however as we never know what happens in other municipalities away from our home. Best way to avoid these sticky situations is to bring a reusable 🙂

  • Jen, thank you so much for sharing. I am so surprised about the takeaway coffee cups. I thought I saw a recycle logo on it but now that I think about it I only noted it on the top plastic part of the cup, not the cup itself. I already started taking my own coffee mug when going out for coffee but will be more diligent about it after reading this

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