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  • Writer's pictureMeg

Is Your Recycling Bin Just Full of Landfill Waste You Feel Better About?

Updated: May 15, 2022

Recycling is a good place to start but a bad place to stop – Lindsay Miles, Treading my Own Path

In the years that I have been blogging about waste and running workshops with Katie about how to reduce it, we have consistently been asked about recycling. It seems, no one is really sure about what to put in which bin, whether to wash items, whether its worth risking contamination in the hope of recycling and what is accepted as recycling in different regions. Indeed, it has taken hours of personal research and constant review to understand what is accepted by the recycling facilities in my region.

But in the end, I gave up. The easiest way to recycle right, is to try not recycling at all.

The difference between your average Australian and someone transitioning towards zero waste is that the average Australian is much more passionate about recycling. The average Australian has grow up with the 3 R’s, say them with me now: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! The only thing is the order of priority got confused someway along the way, with people mistakenly thinking they could consume as much as they like because they could recycle it in the end. In my opinion, there has been little mind paid to reducing or reusing in our country – its barely in the collective psyche. Making the commitment to transition towards zero waste meant that I relinquished my dependence on recycling a long time ago.

To overcome our recycling dependence, we have to first be aware of the things they are putting in our recycling bin – perhaps with a bin audit. Once I became aware of the things I was recycling I did one of the following instead:

rethink: I questioned whether I actually needed some of the things that ended up in my recycling bin (for the most part I didn’t). Another important concept within rethinking the things we buy is rethinking the source of what we buy. I developed a simple personal standard: if I can’t buy it in bulk, I don’t need it (this is more simple now than ever before with beautiful bulk stores like Valerie’s Pantry and Winchelsea Wholefoods).

refuse: this is an R that most Australian’s would be totally unfamiliar with. So much of our personal waste can be generated in cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and markets. Refusing may sound impolite but it really is as simple as saying “can I have that without a [bag/straw/disposable cutlery/napkin/in my own cup/container etc]”

reduce: if you can’t give something up, consider using less and hence buying it less frequently. If you need a spread on your toast (like Nuttelex for us when I’m out of the habit of making my own vegan butter) try supplementing your use with a natural alternative fat-based spread like avocado every now and then – with Natural Harry‘s homemade Vegemite, few things compare!

reuse/repair: is one of the simplest R’s. I take joy in reusing glass jars to store and carry leftovers and snacks. More broadly, for me this means reusing materials and buying (or otherwise obtaining) household items and clothes second-hand. And yes, ideally something can be reused an infinite number of times – if it wears or breaks, try to repair it!

Or re-purpose it, old glass bottles can become vases and well-worm t-shirts can become household cleaning rags.

rot: though paper and cardboard is commonly recycled I have always preferred to compost it as it balances out the green to brown waste ratio in my compost bin. However, heavily inked and glossed pages, including conventional wrapping paper I’d prefer not to compost due to chemical contamination from plastic and inks.

recycle: it is indeed an incredible feat to be able to restore something back to its original material and fashion it into something new – an incredible feat we tend to take for granted and understand very little about. I found that the broader I read about recycling the more incredible I thought it was, but also the less optimistic I became that the few things I did still put in the recycling bin would actually be made into recycled goods.

In 2017, Four Corners reported that around Australia, kerbside recycling was being stockpiled, dumped on private property or in landfill – the very place it was supposed to be diverted from. Last week, at a Towards Zero Waste Geelong workshop, Katie and I mentioned that by the latest estimates as little as 10% of what is collected in kerbside recycling is actually recycled – this was a shock to most people in attendance. A few days after our workshop, The Geelong City Council announced that one of the main recycling facilities, SKM Recycling have closed their facility for the next several weeks, as the storage capacity has been reached (and poses a fire hazard).

Although it had previously been the case that only one in three items, then 10% or less of our waste was being recycled, for some reason it was a big shock to our small Geelong community to get the news that the recycling industry has reached its limits. After years of thoughtless consumption of single use items, there is an excessive supply of recyclable waste and very little demand for these abundant materials, especially the likes of glass and plastic.

My recycling bin collection was this morning. I watched as the contents was collected, knowing that it would not be recycled but instead sent to landfill. For many Geelong folks this is a depressing state of affairs, not least of all because our waste collection, including recycling collection, is something we pay for in our rates. Let this be a sign of the times for other major city’s around Australia, your city could be the next hit by our national recycling crisis. Recycling has always and will always be a privilege afforded to city people, many rural towns have never had the fortune of kerbside collection. The collapse of this industry affects us all.

We had fair warning that the industry was in crisis and now that crisis has hit the kerb outside our very own homes. For some this will be the first time they consider their personal waste footprint at all, for others the dependency on recycling will continue and be re-diverted in different directions. I have seen online threads with people talking about stockpiling and dropping off various materials at various individual facilities to recycle them. It should be noted that there are still small, family owned recycling facility’s which can support us and who do a good community service. However, whilst re-directing recycling from the steadily closing-down major facilities is admirable and demonstrates just how much some people dare to care, it misses the point about what living towards zero waste is all about. Re-diverting recycling is an idea born from within the 3 R’s mindset. Living a life towards zero waste means evolving from the 3 R’s to the 8 R’s. It takes a little more thought and a bit more effort at first, then it becomes a mindset that we can – and must – adopt to if we want to stop choking our waterways with plastic and disrespecting the planet we call home.

rethink > refuse > reduce > reuse > repair > re-purpose > rot > recycle

Though I am not dependent on recycling, there was still a couple of items that I threw out to my fortnightly collection, I’m proud of my efforts towards zero waste. But the current recycling crisis has motivated me to do better still, and I hope you will too. Back in the day, I used to feel good – almost proud – of my full and uncontaminated recycling bin. Nowadays, I feel much better having an empty recycling bin. For the last few years I have tried to live as if the privilege of recycling was not available to me and this week, that ideal became real. The Towards Zero Waste Geelong Facebook group keeps me inspired with ideas for all the R’s that come before the eighth – join us by clicking here!

Thanks for reading,

Meg x

References and Resources

Four Corners report about stockpiled recycling: read article here

One of my favourite zero waste blogs, Lindsay Miles: 

Watch Lindsay’s brilliant Ted Talk here



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