Posts

Behind the Scenes: What ACTUALLY Happens to Recycling

I love a good tour of a recycling facility or a landfill site. Asking the question “where does our rubbish and recycling actually go?” is one thing, but to actually go and have a look? That’s a completely different experience.

Recycling is presented to us as a green, clean solution – but the truth is, it’s stinky, resource-intensive and run by markets. Meaning, if it’s not cost-effective to recycle, then it won’t be recycled. If no-one wants to buy the stuff that we’re collecting for recycling, then it won’t be recycled.

My first visit to a recycling centre (which has the technical name of Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF – pronounced “murf”) was back in 2012. I’d just taken part in Plastic Free July, and was working hard to reduce my plastic and choose glass, paper and cardboard instead.

That MRF visit changed my perspective on waste almost as much as Plastic Free July did.

Because it didn’t look like how recycling looks like in the brochures.

Because it was kinda stinky and gross, and there was so much of it.

Because the guy showing us around was hell-bent on telling us: if we can’t sell it for good money, we send it to landfill.

This was the recycling from just a few suburbs collected in a single afternoon.

Visiting that MRF challenged my perceptions of recycling. It wasn’t green, or clean. It was a business, and it was running for profit. If landfill was a cheaper option than recycling, then the resources were landfilled. The ones that were recycled were baled into containers and shipped overseas for processing.

Everything went overseas for processing. None of that happened in Perth.

The biggest revelation for me was that glass is not recycled at all in Perth. Some MRFs sell glass to be crushed into road base (which I personally don’t consider to be recycling), but at this MRF, all glass was landfilled.

(Five years later and this is still true: glass is still not recycled in Perth, nor it seems, on the east coast of Australia.)

That visit to the MRF changed the way I viewed waste completely. There I was, choosing glass over plastic, only to find out that all that glass was heading to landfill.

That was not what I had expected.

That was my realisation that it wasn’t just plastic I needed to refuse, it was all packaging. I hadn’t heard of “zero waste” back then, but that visit was the start of my zero waste journey.

I’ve been pretty obsessed with waste ever since, and I’ve been to plenty of MRFs and other waste recovery places to find out exactly what goes on. I thought I’d share a few of these insights for those of you who can’t make it to one.

What Goes on at a Materials Recovery Facility (Recycling Centre)?

This is one of several recycling facilities in Perth. This facility services 5 councils. It cost $20 million to build.

The recycling is dumped on the floor by the recycling trucks, and from there is loaded onto a conveyor belt and the various recycling streams are sorted.

First the cardboard and paper is separated by spinning rollers into mixed paper, old corrugated cardboard and old newspaper (the three structures labelled in the picture below).

The glass is sorted by a tremel, crushed and used for road base. The steel is separated by a magnet, the plastic is sorted by an optical eye that can differentiate PET, HDPE and mixed plastic, and these are separated. An eddy current is used to separate the aluminium.

The resulting materials are baled and loaded into containers for shipping overseas: China, Malaysia or Indonesia. The recycling facility works on 3-month contracts with these purchasers.

What happens once these materials arrive overseas is a grey area. The companies have standards and agreements to adhere to for recycling and processing the waste, but there are also reports that most of the plastic is burned as a cheap alternative to fossil fuels.

What Happens with Commercial Composting?

Commercial composting can use various different “wastes” but for households, there are two main types of collection – those that use a dedicated food organics and garden organics bin (FOGO – they do love acronyms in the waste industry!) and those which compost the general landfill bin.

This facility composts the landfill bin. This means a much higher level of contamination.

Residents tend to put things in their landfill bin that they are told they cannot recycle. That makes sense, yes? But it means plastic, broken glass, pottery, broken electronics and all kinds of other stuff gets mingled in – and sent here for composting.

The first job is when the landfill waste arrives here is to remove as much of the big contaminants (bicycle wheels, gas bottles, large plastic items) from the waste. This is sorted with a big truck. Then it’s loaded into the composting machines, called digesters. They are 67m long, and there are 4 of them at this facility.

The “waste” is rotated in the digester for 3 days before being deposited in a large warehouse (the size of two soccer fields) to mature. It’s turned every few days by a machine, and cooled using giant fans to circulate air.

To prevent odours, the digesters have these enormous biofilters, made of tanks filled with water and wood chips. There are four of these: one for each digester. The air is sucked out with a vacuum filter.

The compost is then sieved and screened to remove metal, plastic, glass and other pieces, and transported for further processing. Because it still has high levels of contaminants, it is only suitable for agricultural use.

Commercial composting facilities that accept dedicated food and garden organics bins have much lower levels of contamination and produce a higher grade compost.

Is This Typical? Is This What Happens to MY Recycling?

The truth is, every recycling facility is different. Some are much more high-tech than this, and some are much lower tech. Some use hand-pickers (real people who separate rubbish and pick out contaminants) and others rely solely on machinery.

Commercial composters are also different, and processes vary. Some councils don’t utilise these services at all, and simply landfill the contents of the landfill bin.

No two Materials Recovery Facilities are exactly the same. (Even where the machinery is the same, the contractors might be different, the ability to sell resources to markets is different, volumes will differ, and operating costs – meaning profitability -will be different.) If you are even the slightest bit interested in waste and where it goes, I recommend visiting your local one. Many (but not all) are open to the public. Contact your local council or waste contractor, and ask if they run tours.

Even if they don’t, there might still be an opportunity to have a look. Ask the question!

No Recycling Facility has 100% Recycling Rates

Recycling is always subject to contaminants, error and changes in the market. Someone putting the wrong thing in the wrong bin can contaminate a whole load (think asbestos and hazardous waste).

Markets change all the time. The value of plastic fluctuates with the price of oil. If oil prices are low, there’s less incentive for manufacturers to use recycled plastic as new plastic will be cheap. If oil prices are high, it’s more expensive to ship low-cost materials overseas for processing.

Councils often encourage us to put things into our recycling bins to get us into good habits. Or, they might prefer non-recycables to go to a recycling facility for sorting and removal, rather than putting them through a commercial composter (where they can do more damage). Or they think it is just too confusing to go into details, and we’ll get overwhelmed if they don’t make it really simple for us.

Acceptance of a material into a recycling bin is not a confirmation that the material will be recycled. It just means that it is the preferable option: to establish good habits, reduce contamination elsewhere, and give us faith in the recycling system.

Recycling Uses Huge Amounts of Energy

Recycling takes a huge amount of resources. Trucks need to collect those recycling bins from our streets, drive them to sorting facilities (and sometimes they get taken to a transfer station first, meaning two road trips) and then heavy machinery is required to sort the different streams. Then the materials need to be baled, loaded into containers and shipped to their final destination – which is often overseas.

Once overseas, there’s more processing and transportation.

Yes, recycling helps reduce new materials from being mined out of the ground. Yes, it uses less energy overall than making new things. Yes, it definitely keeps things out of landfill and keeps materials in circulation longer.

Recycling is definitely preferable to not recycling.

But recycling is not a perfect solution. 

Recycling is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse and repair – they all come before recycling.

Much as I’d love to live completely waste free, we don’t live in a circular economy. Many things are not designed for reuse. I still produce recycling – everyone does. I still receive letters in the mail, purchase the odd thing in paper or cardboard, buy wine in glass bottles on occasion, and  find plastic packaging entering my home.

But I try to keep my recyclables to a minimum. If I can refuse something, then I will.

I pop those things I can’t (or choose not to) avoid in my recycling bin and I hope for the best.

Before I embarked on my zero waste lifestyle, I would see my full recycling bin as a badge of honour for being the responsible eco-citizen. Now I see anything that enters my recycling bin as a waste of resources, a failure of my imagination, a flaw in the system.

Most importantly, I see these things as something to work at improving for next time.

It is fantastic that recycling exists. It saves all those resources from landfill, and gives them the opportunity for reuse. We will always need recycling, but we mustn’t rely on it, or think of it as the solution.

Recycling is a great place to start. But it’s a terrible place to stop. We can do so much better.

Zero Waste Week: the Finale

Phew. That was an interesting week, but I’m glad it’s over!

What do you think?!

Before I go into what’s in all the bins in a little more detail, I thought I’d start with the positives and share some of the good stuff we managed to do.

Firstly, I want to tell you about our Zero Waste beer discovery. We went to a friend’s birthday a couple of months back and met a guy who was really into his beer, and had his own draught beer in refillable bottles. I don’t drink beer but my boyfriend does, and I love zero waste, so I got chatting to him about it.

It turns out that there’s a beer shop in Perth that sells draught beer in returnable containers. They have up to 8 beers on tap (the selection changes), and they have 1litre or 2litre glass refillable containers. You pay a deposit for the container, buy the beer per litre, and once it’s finished you can return the bottle and buy a refill.

The machine uses carbon dioxide so the sealed bottles last a couple of months. Once open, they need drinking within 24 hours. My boyfriend assures me that won’t be a problem!

Beer Fridge Side
Beer Guy
waste free beer poured

We’ve bought two 1 litre containers. The shop is quite close to where my boyfriend’s parents live, so we’re confident we should be able to get there reasonably often. Unfortunately in the excitement my boyfriend managed to finish off the beer before Zero Waste Week actually began, but it was the challenge that forced us to go and check the place out, so it still deserves a mention!

My boyfriend headed to our local farmers market at the weekend for eggs (we shop here as the seller takes back the empty boxes for re-using) and this mystery Christmassy-looking sack:Bulk macadamias returnable sack

Intrigued? Can you guess what’s inside?
Bulk macadamias

No, not Maltesers. Macadamia nuts!

We bought a macadamia nut cracker a while back (they need a heavier duty nut cracker than other nuts) so that we could crack our own nuts. These shelled macadamia nuts are $5.50/kg and locally grown. There’s nothing better than buying local. I chatted to the guy and he said he can take the sack back for reusing.

nutcracker

My toothbrush-soaking experiment was a success. After soaking for 12 hours, i was able to pull all off the bristles out. Interestingly, I discovered each bristle clump is held in place by a tiny piece of metal. As I lack a compost bin, the bamboo handle is heading for the worm farm. I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to eat it, but if I leave it long enough it might decompose. Seems silly to buy bamboo toothbrushes and send them to landfill.

Bamboo toothbrush parts

That was the good news; here’s the bit about the waste we generated. Trying to commit to zero waste is hard work – even if I have the best of intentions, the world around me hasn’t quite got the message. Particularly the postman. Not that it’s his fault, of course, but on Friday a whole heap of letters arrived in the mail. More envelope windows and unnecessary paper. Plus one item was wrapped in plastic!

ZeroWasteWeek post

I finished off our honey, which left me with an empty jar. I buy things in jars very rarely, and probably generate less than one jar a month. But this jar was emptied this week, so I thought I’d mention it, even though it’s not technically waste as I save the jars for reusing.

Zeo Waste Week empty Jar

The Zero Waste Week Bin Audit

In one week, here’s what we generated:

The worm farm caddy: this took all the kitchen scraps excluding onion and citrus peel, eggshells and any bulky.food waste. I also put scrap paper like envelopes, toilet roll tubes, cotton buds, hair and floor sweepings. In one week this container was completely filled. I’m not sure the worm farm could cope with that much organic matter every week, however.

The bokashi bin: this took the citrus peel, onion skins, eggshells and bulky food waste that didn’t fit in the worm farm caddy. There’s still plenty of room left so I think I’ll be able to keep using this for several weeks before it’s at capacity.

The recycling bin: in addition to the wine bottle from Wednesday, we gained another wine bottle at the weekend. There is also a handful of receipts, some glossy paper from the post extravaganza that I didn’t want to put in the worm farm, and a milk bottle top.

The rubbish bin: we reduced this to a handful of plastic toothbrush bristles and the plastic milk bottle label. I’m not sure whether this would be recyclable, so it went in the bin.

I thought it might be interesting to break down what plastic we consumed this week:

The plastic tally:

1 x milk bottle top (metal lid but plastic lined)
1 x milk bottle label
Toothbrush bristles
One plastic wrapper covering an item we received in the post (it was promotional material, but was addressed to us).

The milk bottle lid goes for recycling, as does the plastic bag (our local supermarket has a bin for plastic bags and food packaging, so what little we get we save up and take there).

In fact, this is our third collection of plastic since the start of January this year:

plastic waste

Zero Waste Week: What I Learned

This challenge wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of extra effort to reduce our waste to this level. It isn’t something we could currently keep up longer than a week or so either. We deliberately didn’t buy things that we knew would generate extra waste – fine for a week but not practical long-term.

So what were the big lessons?

  • We use too much paper. We get too many receipts, we receive too much in the mail, and it just seems to miraculously appear. Paper also makes the flat look messy, so if we can reduce our paper use, we can have a tidier flat. Definitely something to work on!
  • I’m not going back to sending food scraps to landfill. I’m going to investigate whether I can use the local school compost bin, or figure out a system for making the bokashi bin a permanent fixture. I just can’t send all that potential compost to landfill!
  • There’s nothing like a challenge to force you to do all those things you’ve been meaning to do but never quite get round to!

Now I want to hear from you! How do you think I did? Did you try a Zero Waste Week too, or are you tempted to give it a go? Do you have any other tips or ideas to keep waste down? Leave your thoughts in the comments!