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Have you ever found yourself facing your recycling bin, completely befuddled about whether or not you can put a particular item in it?
You're not alone. According to Planet Ark, nearly half of Australians find recycling confusing.
Australia's recycling rules can seem horrendously complicated, but fortunately they are becoming more simple.
In the meantime, here's a brief guide to some of the golden rules of kerbside recycling, plus what to do with materials that can't go in your recycling bin.
As the first rule above says, most papers, plastics, metals and glasses can be recycled, but there are a few exceptions and rules for special handling.
All paper and cardboard, except 'absorbable' paper (eg. tissues, serviettes, paper towel) and waxed paper (eg. baking paper, coffee cups, paper ice-cream containers) can be recycled.
- Minor contaminants are okay (eg. staples, little plastic, food residue).
- Small scraps must be contained in larger items.
All rigid plastics, including #1-7 (with lids removed from bottles/containers) can be recycled.
- Food residues are okay (ie. no need to be washed).
- Bottle lids.
- No soft (scrunchable) plastics (eg. plastic packets, biscuit trays).
- No foam, styrofoam or polystyrene.
Glass jars and bottles of all colours (with lids removed) can be recycled.
- No glassware, oven-proof glass, plate glass or lightbulbs.
All metal containers and household items can be recycled.
- Small items like lids must be contained in larger items.
Other helpful sources for recycling rules include:
Sydney's Garbage Guru, which lets you look up any item and see the best thing to do with it – it's likely to be applicable to many other cities across the country.
Why do some things need special treatment?
Some items need special handling before they can go in kerbside recycling. These are generally either very small items, or complex/composite items.
Small items, like scraps of paper or foil, steel bottle caps or plastic bottle lids and coffee pods, can cause problems if simply placed in a recycling bin. Because they are small, they can literally fall through the cracks in sorting machines, causing damage to the machines or ending up in landfill.
Combined or composite items are complex items that contain multiple materials, such as newspapers or magazines in plastic wrap, or composite items like Pringles tubes. Automated recycling machines can cope with very small amounts of different materials, such as staples in paper, plastic windows on envelopes, paper labels on glass jars, or slight residues of food on containers. But items with multiple materials can confuse the machines and end up in the wrong category, introducing contamination.
Why is contamination an issue?
Contamination is when things that can't be recycled through kerbside recycling systems end up in the recycling system.
Contamination can create many problems: recyclable materials may need to be dumped in landfill; the output of recycled materials is less pure; workers at recycling facilities can be put at risk; and in some cases machinery can be damaged. All of these lead to increased costs of recycling that may be passed on to residents.
For example, glass recycling programs are designed only to process glass bottles and jars, which are crushed and then melted down and re-used. Drinking glasses, ceramics, plate glass (window panes) and oven-proof glass melt at higher temperatures than normal glass bottles and jars. When these are incorrectly placed in recycling, this tougher glass can remain solid among the melted glass, leading to impure glass products and damaged machinery.
Better technology is helping to remove contaminants during sorting. But it's always best to get it right at the source. Planet Ark says that a good recycler's motto is: "If in doubt, leave it out."
What about things that can't be recycled at home?
Just because something can't be recycled through kerbside collections, that doesn't mean it can't be recycled at all.
New channels for recycling more complex items have been pioneered by organisations such as Planet Ark and TerraCycle, as well as by local councils, industry and government under schemes such as the Australian Packaging Covenant and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme.
Most councils have drop-off locations for larger items that can't go in kerbside bins, such as electronics, batteries, light bulbs, chemicals and hazardous waste, as well as pickups for white goods and mattresses.
Many supermarkets in metro areas have REDcycle bins that accept soft plastics like plastic bags, soft plastic packaging, biscuit packets and trays, dry cleaning bags, and other "scrunchable" plastics.
Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and so getting it right is crucial.
[This article originally appeared on The Conversation.]
Read this next: Are You Making These Recycling Mistakes?
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