Recycling 101 – how can we be doing more?

Many of us are familiar with recycling. Children are taught the three Rs in school, we ask “Where’s your recycling?” when visiting friends, and participate in municipal programs in an effort to prevent litter, save resources, and help the environment. 

Recycling is an impactful habit that makes a difference every day. The challenge is that standard kerbside recycling programs are incredibly confusing. What is accepted varies from region to region (even town to town!), relatively few items are accepted, and depending on the level of contamination in the bin, some of it ends up in landfill anyway. 

Why are there so many obstacles to our items being recycled, and what can be done to ensure more products and packaging aren’t thrown “away” to landfills (essentially, land sites where garbage is dumped or buried) or incinerators (where garbage goes to burn)?

What is recycling?

For starters, let’s define what recycling actually is: the collection of discarded items (also known as “waste”) and their transformation into material for new products. Recycling reduces the use of new, “virgin” material and the need to extract additional resources from the earth.

There are many ways to use resources instead of throwing them away. However, unlike waste to energy (using discards as a fuel source for heat or electricity) or upcycling (changing the function of an item without breaking it down, also known as “creative reuse”), recycling breaks down recovered material to build it back into something entirely new. It’s kind of magical!

So, what’s the problem?

There are key ingredients to the magic of recycling that are essential to its success, and if one is missing, it falls apart. Even if something is technically recyclable (more on this shortly!), there are several steps between it being tossed and it being transformed into a new product.

Aluminum, for example, is endlessly recyclable with strong demand all over the world. However, when it comes to plastic, companies often go for new over recycled. That’s because oil is currently cheap, and recycling costs more money to collect, transport, sort, and process into a reusable form.

Generally, if these costs are greater than what a material can be profitably sold for (this is the case with most plastics today), it is considered non-recyclable. Above all, recycling is a function of supply, so if manufacturers aren’t buying recycled materials to produce new items, there is no end-market for the material, and public recycling programs for said materials don’t exist. 

This has come into even sharper focus with China’s ban on foreign waste. Western regions such as Australia and New Zealand had long been sending our recyclables to those countries to supply their manufacturing, and now that they aren’t buying, our “recyclables” have a limited end-market!

As a result, public recycling is facing a few challenges. Single-stream recycling programs (where all recyclables — paper, plastic, glass, and aluminium — are collected in one bin instead of separated) cause cross-contamination, and good-intentioned residents often resort to “wish-cycling” (or, aspirational recycling) because they don’t how for sure what is accepted.

Everything from car parts, bicycles, toilet seats, garden hoses, working smartphones and laptops, even an actual German Enigma machine from World War II, have been extracted from recycling lines as a result of poor separation, another key ingredient to effective recycling.

Currently Australians recycle just under half of all their packaging, and only 16 per cent of plastic. There’s lots of room for improvement.

What can I do to recycle more?

Public recycling is economically motivated, so unfortunately many common items don’t belong in your yellow bin. However, TerraCycle has proven that everything is technically recyclable, including toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, disposable razors, pens and markers, coffee capsules, and toys and collectables.

Even the taboo, the “yucky,” like chewing gum, dirty diapers, and cigarette butts—the most littered item in the world and one for the largest sources of ocean plastic pollution— can be recycled into formats manufacturers and brands use for new production. 

However recycling always comes at a cost, and public recycling is funded by taxes. The way TerraCycle works around these limitations is through partnerships with conscious companies, who create first-of-its-kind National Recycling Programs (Kiwis – click here), which are free for consumers. 

For products and packaging that don’t have a brand-sponsored recycling solution, the Zero Waste Box system has you covered (coming to New Zealand soon). This is a convenient and all-inclusive option for households, schools, businesses, facilities, and events looking to lighten their footprint.  Simply select and order a solution based on what you want to recycle, collect, ship back to us with a prepaid return label and reorder your next Zero Waste Box system to continue to recycle everything.

It is worth repeating that the key reason TerraCycle is able to recycle almost everything is the fact that someone is willing to pay for it. More and more, the world is waking up to the fact that public recycling is on the decline, so by creating access to solutions, TerraCycle aims to show the world the magic of putting more material to good use.

Still confused about recycling? Ask us anything in the comments below!

2 thoughts

  1. I have a friend who insists on putting used aluminium foil wrap & used Glad Bake in his recycling bin. These have food remaining on them. I don’t think that these contaminated items are suitable to be recycled. What are your thoughts please?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michele, your friend definitely shouldn’t be putting baking paper in their kerbside recycling bin, even if it doesn’t have food on it. The wax coating on baking paper makes it unsuitable for this method of recycling. There are some compostable baking papers available which you could put in your compost or green bin (if your council provides green bins). Foil can go in the yellow bin, but you do need to make sure it doesn’t have food on it. Also when recycling foil you need to make a ball the size of a golf ball or bigger to ensure it doesn’t fall through the machinery when being processed, and end up in landfill. Many people collect their foil over time and roll it into one big ball to ensure it can be processed and recycled. We hope this helps, happy recycling!

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