What Happens To Our Recyclable Items?

Australia is a high waste-producing country.

In fact, over 50 million tonnes of waste is produced each year, averaging over two tonnes per person. Fortunately, over 51% of this household waste gets recycled.

Whilst there is still room for improvement, more Australians are adapting a 'waste reduction' mentality. Today, smart recycling practices are on the rise. But with landfill experiencing an extreme influx of waste, adapting waste management strategies has never been so important.

To avoid waste clogging up already densely packed landfills, it's crucial we understand what happens to our recyclables. Waste management is a hot topic – how can you do your bit to help? As people become more environmentally aware, turning recyclable items into useful resources is something everyone can contribute to daily.

Australia has high volumes of recycled waste. If you're wondering where it goes, here's where the most common recyclable materials end up:

Understanding the Recycling Process

The economics of recycling differ slightly between states. Regardless of where you are in Australia though, the recycling process starts with you in your home.

After you've put your fortnightly collection of Weet-Box boxes, wine bottles, milk containers and other recyclables into your yellow bin, the materials are taken to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). This is where a series of advanced processes proceed to separate and sort the different materials, both mechanically and manually.

Rotating magnets pick up steel-based materials, paper is separated by big fans and 'eddy' currents make aluminium products jump off the conveyor belt. Plastics are a little more complicated. Light sorters are used to identify the various types of plastics (from seven options), which are then separated into different containers.

After the materials have been sorted, they're bundled into bales and shipped off to different locations where they're manufactured into reusable products.

It's not economically viable for your recyclable items to go through this process and be sent to landfill. Instead, they become useful resources.

Road Base and Pavement Construction

Construction and demolition (C&D) waste contributes to about 40% of Australia's total waste generation.

Timber, concrete, metals, plastics, glass, cardboard and asphalt are just some of the C&D waste generated after every civil or construction building project. However, high landfill disposal costs and tonnes of waste still clogging up landfill have lifted the country's efforts to improve the resource recovery performance from the C&D stream, along with incentives for the industry.

From the MRF, crushed bricks and concrete are recycled into road base which is a valuable material needed for new and used roads across the country. It's also used for curbs and driveways.

Bricks and concrete are also repurposed into tracking materials, which are used under roads and carparks.

Glass fines (manufactured from glass containers), crumbled rubber and Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement (RAP) now supplements traditional sand and aggregate extracted in pavement construction. Combined with good processing facilities, there is a huge opportunity to utilise these recyclable materials in pavement and road works.

Old Bottles into New Bottles and Clothing

Not all plastics can be recycled. The ones that are can be repurposed into new bottles, plastic containers, plastic wraps and foam packaging. They're also being utilised for clothing!

Some plastics are sent overseas to China where they're repurposed into other products, such as toys and coat hangers.

Whilst plastic bottles can be recycled into plastic bags, the petroleum used to manufacture nine plastic bags is enough to power a car for a kilometre. Plastic bags are of the major waste materials produced in Australia. Thus, the plastic bag ban is a big benefit to our environment.

Papers and Packaging

Australia has a 87% recycling rate of paper and cardboard, one of the highest in the world.

These materials are sent to different locations to be manufactured. Some goes to local paper mills where its repurposed into recycled products such as cereal boxes, paper towel, high quality office paper, toilet paper and packaging, after the glue and staples are removed.

Other paper and cardboard materials are exported overseas to be processed in additional areas, based on cost efficiency.

Compost Solutions

Because timber is one of the most renewable and earth-friendly materials, it can be repurposed into many useful resources.

Clean timber and green waste is recycled into compost materials, garden mulch and animal bedding. This includes soft wood, hard wood, timber pallets and biodegradable waste such as grass clippings, woodchips and branches.

Most organic resource recovery facilities that mulch garden waste accept quantities of untreated timber (timber that hasn't been painted, stained or chemically treated). This is then processed into woodchips for use in the horticulture and agriculture industries.

Metals and Aluminium to Smelting Factory

Metal and steel is sorted from the waste via strong overhead electro magnets. Aluminium cans are pulled from the conveyor belt using the eddy current, which works like a reverse magnet.

Once these materials are sorted from the waste, they're sent to the smelting factory and heated in enclosed furnaces. Here, waste metals are turned into reinforcement bars which are used to strengthen concrete structures.

With the war on waste changing consumer's behaviour, it's never been easier to implement smart waste management strategies on a regular basis. To contribute to positive change and minimise the amount of waste you generate, best practices start with you and your bins. How will you make an impact?

This article is written by Jayde Ferguson, who writes for Instant Waste Management – leading waste management solutions through skip bins and waste management plans. You can catch Jayde on Google+ to discuss this piece.

Read this next: How To Be A Zero Waste Family

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