Need to know
- There are plenty of things that can be recycled, some of which you may not be aware of
- Your local council has a lot to say on the subject
- Ideally, the manufacturer should be involved from the product’s initial design through to end-of-life recycling
There's always that moment when you're about to put something into the recycling bin when you wonder: can this be recycled?
We can't recycle everything, but in Australia we do have some great recycling facilities, and they're growing all the time as we realise the opportunities to extract valuable materials from existing products that no longer have a useful life.
At the same time, consumers are helping more and more products make their way to recycling facilities as this process becomes more embedded into the Australian consciousness.
Your local council is your first point of contact for recycling near you. Commonly just putting your local council and recycling into a search engine will take you to the appropriate page.
What you can recycle will depend on where you are and what your local council facilitates.
Where possible, local councils recycle across a basic range of materials such as paper, plastics and metals.
Some councils also offer drop-off, collection and recycling centres for electronic waste (e-waste) and chemicals, and/or hard rubbish or kerbside pickups. Councils will detail what's available on the waste and recycling section of their website.
Sometimes this is a little more difficult in regional areas where the travel miles for getting some recyclable products to extraction sites are just not feasible for a council to afford.
Many forms of glass can be recycled, but there do tend to be restrictions on broken glass, window panes or oven glass from the mixed rubbish bins supplied by some councils.
A significant proportion of recycled materials over the last few decades has been paper and cardboard products. These can generally be recycled through your local council, though there are limitations on how often paper and cardboard can be recycled. Every time paper or cardboard is recycled, the fibres get smaller and smaller and are difficult to recycle into other products.
Some councils require clean paper/cardboard only, and may need dirty paper or cardboard to go in the general waste or organic waste bins. Again, check in with your local council.
Hard plastics can also be recycled by many councils, however the complexity of the types of plastics often get in the way of effective recycling.
You'll have seen the numbers 1 to 7 embossed within a triangle on most plastic containers, which indicate the type of plastic they'e made from. While all can be recycled with the right technology, not all councils can recycle all numbers. Most commonly 1 and 2 can be recycled through your local council, but again, you'll need to check with your council.
Organic waste/food waste
A more recent phenomenon is food waste disposal through council bins, which is especially useful for apartment dwellers who don't have access to a garden, compost or worm farm.
Organic or garden waste bins are sometimes supplied by councils for cuttings, grass, weeds and many of the other wastes that come from the average Australian garden. There may be limitations on the size of branches that can be deposited in these kinds of bins. Some councils go above and beyond and return branches mulched for you to use in your garden.
One of the better sites for finding out what's available in your backyard is PlanetArk's RecyclingNearYou site, where you can just plug in your postcode to see what's available to you. South Australia has a facility called WhichBin which is particularly useful, and would be great for all councils to adopt.
Recycling programs are continually being developed. You may not have realised that some of these products below were already part of Australia's recycling programs.
Stores such as Aldi, Battery World, Ikea, Bunnings and Officeworks provide bins for recycling batteries.
One initiative that's been around in some states for a long time, and has only started in the last few years in others, is an incentive program for returning some drinking containers (typically glass, aluminium and plastic) for a small amount of money in return.
Called 'Container Deposit' in the Northern Territory, the ACT and South Australia, 'Return and Earn' and 'ReturnIt' in NSW, and 'Containers for Change' in Queensland and WA, these programs are great examples of incentivising consumers to recycle. Victoria and Tasmania plan to implement a container deposit scheme in 2023.
Lions Club currently runs a program to recycle eyeglasses called Recycle for Sight Australia.
There are a couple of areas that facilitate the recycling of light globes, including Ikea and the Lighting Council of Australia program 'FluoroCycle'.
RecycleMyMattress links through to SoftLanding, a mattress recycler that reuses around 75% of your recycled mattress.
The best known mobile recycling program is MobileMuster.
You can return medicines that you no longer need to the Return Unwanted Medicines program, but they don't recycle them. Chemist's Own and TerraCycle have partnered to recycle the blister packaging that your medicines come in.
In the past few years you may have seen REDCycle, an organisation that facilitates soft plastic recycling into different products. But unfortunately it's recently paused its recycling program due to viability issues. REDCycle claimed to use soft plastics to develop products such as concrete replacement, shopping trolleys and other materials.
Paintback runs a program that allows households to drop off their unwanted paints.
Cartridges4PlanetArk runs a project to recycle printer cartridges, returning them to the manufacturer.
Recycling is part of the way we can maintain our standard of living by maximising the value of the materials that make up the products we use every day.
There can be many options to get more life out of a product before you put it into the recycling bin. But where something cannot be reused, sold on or any of the other myriad opportunities to reutilise a product, it enters its final phase of life. This is the extraction of the materials it was made from and turning those materials into new products – or recycling.
There can be many options to get more life out of a product before you put it into the recycling bin
The way in which products are recycled, and whether they can be recycled, varies according to the product and whether there are facilities to do the recycling.
Often this means transport to get the product to the facilities that can do the work, energy to break down the product and extract the materials, and the transport of those extracted materials to manufacturing sites where they'll go into new products.
The 9R framework
The circular economy '9R' framework details the product life cycle, and puts Recycling at stage 8 of the 9 stages.
When a product can't be used any longer, nor can it be sold on, or reused or repurposed by another in any useful capacity, and cannot be repaired, the 9R hierarchy advises that only then should recycling be considered – and where that isn't possible, recovery.
The perception of product stewardship is changing over time. Where once it may have meant enabling recycling, these days it's driving more towards its original intent: taking ownership of a product from design through to end of life.
Where once design was considered purely aesthetic or functional, these days the product stewardship is more encouraging of design to incorporate waste management and environmental impacts.
This responsibility is shared among all the facets of a product, from manufacturers, government and waste collectors through to retailers and consumers.
Ultimately everyone has a responsibility to recycle
It's easy to not recycle, but the waste management industry that provides jobs and resources for more products slows and breaks down if we don't.
Ultimately everyone has a responsibility to recycle – from industry to government to consumers – so that we can grab hold of those resources before they get buried or burned, and reuse them.
That effort is a small price to pay for maintaining and advancing our way of life while reducing our impact on the environment.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.