CHOICE guide to plastic recycling

Only 15% of plastics we consume are recycled. Here’s what you can do.
 
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  • Updated:26 Feb 2009
 

01 .Introduction

Plastic bottles

In brief

  • Although plastics recycling rates have more than doubled over the past decade, we are still recycling only a fraction of the plastics we use each year.
  • Not all plastics with the “recyclable” symbol can be recycled in your local area.
  • 1.7 million tonnes of plastics were consumed in Australia in 2007, of which 15% (or 261,109 tonnes) was recycled.*

* Source: PACIA 2008 National Plastics Recycling Survey

Please note: this information was current as of February 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Over the past decade ready access to kerbside recycling has more than doubled our plastics recycling rates, yet consumer confusion about exactly which plastics can be recycled in different council areas throughout Australia is hindering even greater progress. According to the latest figures from the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA) 2008 National Plastics Recycling Survey, we still only managed to recycle 15% of all the plastics we consumed in 2007 (or 33% of all plastics packaging).

Recycling makes even more sense when you learn that manufacturing plastics from recycled content uses only 30% of the energy required for making plastics from fossil fuels which pollute, making the process both cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

A quick straw poll around the CHOICE office revealed an abundance of contradictory messages when it comes to what plastics can be recycled. So if you, too, think you should know more about recycling plastics, here is the information to help make best use of the schemes on offer in your area.

Video: Waste reclamation

We find out what happens to the rubbish you put out for recycling.

 

No standard recycling rules

While about 97% of Australian households have access to a council-run kerbside recycling scheme, there are no standardised recycling rules telling councils what to collect. Glass, paper, cardboard, metals, plastics and green waste can all be recycled, but what you can put out for kerbside collection depends entirely on where you live.

“It would be much more efficient if we had standard acceptance criteria across all councils,” says Mike Ritchie, General Manager, Marketing and Communications at SITA Environmental Solutions. Until the commodity prices crash in September 2008, the market price for recycled plastics was very high, so councils and other businesses could offer free recycling services. But what local councils accept varies, depending on the transport cost, and/or proximity to, a materials recovery facility (MRF).

Recycling rates still too low

Australians recycled just 15% of all the plastics we consumed in 2007, which is 33% of all plastics packaging – the total plastics recycling rate includes durables as well as packaging. The packaging waste from household and public place recycling constitutes almost half of the total plastics recycled, but to put this into perspective, its lifespan is generally minute compared with durables such as pipes, which may last for years.

Jeff Angel, Executive Director of the Total Environment Centre, says the figures are also exaggerated because they don’t include the plastic packaging on imported finished goods, and include the recovered packaging that’s sent overseas for recycling or other purposes. “But even if 33% was correct, it’s abysmally low,” he says.

“The recycling rate in Australia has been improving over time, but there is still a lot of scope within the packaging and waste industries to improve these statistics. Greater public place recycling, better event recycling and deposit legislation would certainly help increase recycling rates,” says Planet Ark’s Brad Gray.

CHOICE verdict

To improve recycling efficiency, all three sectors in the community need to work together: governments to implement a more consistent approach to recycling, industry to invest in state-of-the-art materials recovery technology, and the community to reduce plastic consumption and then to recycle, recycle, recycle…

 
 

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Common recyclable plastics

You can identify most recyclable plastics by their Plastics Identification Code (PIC) number in the “recyclable” triangle, or chasing arrows (see the table). This is a voluntary coding system that helps recyclers identify seven types of plastic (or polymer) when sorting manually.

Plastics with the numbers 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) are generally acceptable for recycling across Australia; they also constitute the vast majority of all plastics recycled. To find out which other recyclables are collected in your area, check with your council, or browse the www.recyclingnearyou.com.au website, which has a wealth of recycling information you can search by product, postcode or suburb.

The remaining plastics are most commonly bundled together and sent as mixed plastics (PIC number 7) to overseas plants for reprocessing. Plastics with the numbers 3-6 are also separately reprocessed locally. While plastics sorted by type gain a better rate on the reprocessing market, the small size of the recycling market in Australia makes exporting as mixed plastics the more viable option.

Unacceptable recyclables

Despite the visible PIC, there is no guarantee that the container can be recycled in your area, nor that it’s indeed suitable for recycling. What can and cannot be recycled in kerbside collections in any particular area depends both on what the container was used for and the technology at the relevant MRF.

The following are some unacceptable recyclables, even though they’re made of recyclable plastic.

  • A high-density polyethylene (HDPE) container if it has carried a hazardous substance.
  • Plastic shopping bags, low density polyethylene (LDPE) packaging film, small bits of polystyrene packaging. This lightweight packaging is likely to get blown out and contaminate the paper stream in the MRF, unless the facility is fully automated and uses optical laser sorting technology.
  • Plastic bottle lids They’re generally made of different plastic from the container and may fall through the holes in the sorting cylinder (trommel), or create air pressure in a closed polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle when it’s compressed, so that when the bottles pop open, the bales can fall apart. However, because they’re a valuable source of recyclable plastic, some MRF operators now advise recycling plastic lids, as optical sorters can deal with the different plastics issue – so follow your council’s advice.

Public place recycling

Recyclables from bins in public places or at big events are processed separately from kerbside collections because their contamination rate is much higher. We still have far too few public place recycling schemes in Australia – again, it’s a matter of cost for councils – but if there’s one in place at your local picnic spot, help keep it viable by recycling just as meticulously as you do at home and only put the listed items in the dedicated recycling bins.

The four Rs of recycling

  • REDUCE the number of products you buy packaged in plastic. Where possible, choose refill or bulk packs and avoid products that are overly packaged.
  • REUSE plastic packaging you can’t avoid, such as takeaway or ice-cream containers, to store food in the freezer.
  • RECYCLE all plastics your council accepts.
  • RECOVER where possible – buy products with recycled content.

Contamination

If you’ve ever thrown into the rubbish an empty peanut butter jar made of recyclable PET for fear of contaminating the whole load, simply because you didn’t want to use all that hot water to clean it, think again. While food and drink waste put into the recycling, as well as containers with leftover food, will indeed contaminate the plastics recycling stream, as sorting these by hand requires more resources and drives up the prices for recycled plastics, they don’t need much cleaning. The higher the standard of the incoming recyclables, the more cost-effective the recycling.

“Recycled plastic is a lower grade product than virgin plastic anyway, so increasing its price makes it economically unviable, it’ll ruin the market for recycled plastic,” says Planet Ark’s Recycling Programs Manager Brad Gray.

However, there is no need to scrub every plastic food container with detergent and hot water before putting it out for recycling; a quick wipe or rinse is usually sufficient.

The vast majority of plastics the Chullora MRF receives from household recycling schemes is clean enough to end up in the recycling stream. Other items to keep out of your recycling bin include:

  • Hazardous materials (such as medical sharps, clinical waste and household chemicals), which also require special disposal.
  • Drinking glasses, as they melt at a higher temperature than glass bottles and jars.
  • Polystyrene meat trays, because of putrescible contaminants.

Table

04.Inside a materials recovery facility

 

Inside a materials recycling facility

WSN Environmental Solutions (a NSW government-owned corporation) operates two materials recycling facilities (MRFs) in Sydney; we visited the Chullora MRF, pictured, one of the largest in Australia. It accepts both “fully co-mingled” and “source separated” recyclables, from kerbside collections where households either put everything into one bin, or presort paper from containers. Here, all recyclables get sorted into different streams – glass, plastics, paper and aluminium – ready for reprocessing.

As the delivery trucks tip their contents on the floor, large front-end loaders push it onto conveyor belts, where sorters remove by hand hazardous substances such as medical waste or car batteries, food waste and cardboard. We also saw them pick out lots of plastic bags, which should never be included in household recycling.

The second step in separation is more automated. The recyclables move through screens with different-sized holes, so small pieces (such as glass shards) fall through at a different point from cans and containers. A strong magnet separates ferrous metals from the rest of the recyclables; an “eddy current” works similarly for aluminium cans. An “air classifier” blows the lighter items (paper) away from the heavier ones (glass). Predominantly mixed plastics now remain on the belt. The majority of the plastics received up to 80%, PET and HDPE, are then sorted out by hand; the rest are baled (compressed) into large blocks of mixed plastics, ready for transport to manufacturers for reprocessing.

Beyond the MRF

Reprocessing takes place either in Australia or overseas. According to the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA), 64% of all plastics recycled in 2007 were reprocessed in Australia. Of these, 61% was used for the manufacture of new products, 18% was exported (predominantly China) and 21% reused internally by the company that reprocessed it (for example, by a soft drink manufacturer in the production of PET bottles).

At the processing plant, the plastics are shredded, chopped or ground, washed, melted and pushed through an extruder, much like a spaghetti press. The mass is then cooled, pressed through a die and chopped or pelletised into granules, ready for manufacture into new products. Check out our video to get an idea of the process – and noise – that prevails on the floor.

Plastic identification codes table
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