Three checks for recyclability.
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
When you go out for takeaway food, there are a myriad of materials that your food may come wrapped in. The main materials tend to be plastic, paperboard, paper, aluminium or some combination of these. Have you ever stood at the general and recycling bins dumbfounded as to which bin to put your takeaway food packaging in? I have. This blog should help you start to make more educated decisions at the bin station.
Inspired by the new Australian Recycling Label I thought I’d veer a little from the takeaway packaging mandate briefly to bring you my three recyclability checks for choosing the right bin (between the yellow mixed recycling bin and the general landfill waste bin). These rules will help when considering what to do with your takeaway food packaging and in the next blog, I will explore examples and takeaway food packaging applications of these recyclability checks.
The three checks.
Whenever you are standing at a pair of bins - I’m assuming you only have general landfill waste and yellow mixed recycling bins available to choose from - there are a three key things to check:
Size – Is it too small?
Materials - What is it made out of?
Soiled - Is it too dirty?
Recyclability check #1.
Is it too small?
If it’s smaller than a credit card, don’t put it in the yellow mixed recycling bin.
Small items will fall through the screening processes at a standard Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) and won’t end up in the right material pile. Small items will land in the ‘residuals’ pile destined for landfill. Recycling technology is smart but it has its limits.
It’s not a problem if you put a small item in a yellow mixed recycling bin, just know that it will likely end up in landfill anyway. If you haven’t ever seen a MRF in action, I thoroughly recommend checking out this video by Townsville City Council to understand how the MRF recycling process works at their local RE-Group facility.
If you’re panicking about your bottle tops, don’t worry you’re not alone AND there is a handy loophole if you’re an extra smart recycler. Screw your plastic bottle tops back onto the crushed bottle to get it through the MRF. Metal bottle tops can be collected together in a tin can, squashed to seal them in and then placed in your recycling bin. It’s about securing the small items with another item of the same material so that they can make it through the screening processes into the right pile.
Recyclability check #2.
Are the materials recyclable?
This is likely the most complex, challenging step. Don’t worry if you get a little perplexed here. Materials and products have evolved and the variety is astounding. Gone are the days of nice simple glass bottles, tin cans and paper bags. Now we have monstrous hybrids of products which combine different materials. We also have materials that look and feel like one thing but actually are something else like compostable plastics. It’s a lot to take in and it’s confusing. Take a moment, breathe.
Now let’s start with the basics. At a MRF, materials get separated into five main material types: glass, aluminium, steel, paper & cardboard and rigid plastic.
When you have an item, check out what it’s made of. Here are a few pointers to help you understand if the item is potentially recyclable based on it’s materials.
If it’s made of just one material from the listed recyclable material types above thhen it is likely to belong in the yellow recycling bin. Single material items are the best for recycling.
If the majority of the item is made from one of the listed recyclable materials, it is likely to be happy in the yellow recycling bin.
If it’s made of multiple materials, where possible separate the materials and remove any non-recyclable materials. Recyclables in the yellow bin, non-recyclables in the landfill bin.
If it’s a soft plastic (a plastic that can be scrunched in your hand) it does NOT belong in the yellow bin. If you’re a proactive recycler, you can save these from landfill by dropping them off in a RedCycle bin at Woolworths or Coles.
If its wooden or organic based (I’m thinking wooden cutlery and compostable plastics here) it does NOT go in the yellow bin either. The exception here is of course paper and cardboard which are organic and are able to be recycled.
That covers the basics of materials. It’s not perfect but it’s a great place to start. Feel free to post questions and we will look at some examples in future blogs – and if in doubt check with your local council.
Recyclablility check #3 - Is it too soiled?
Have you been confused about whether you really should be rinsing out your recycling? Or if you’re takeaway food packaging is too greasy or sodden to go in the recycling bin? Here’s some tip to assess whether it’s too soiled for the recycling bin and whether it's worth putting in that extra effort in to get it clean.
It really depends on the material.
Paper and cardboard
These need to be very clean and unsoiled to be recyclable. Food residue and oil can impede the recycling process because paper and cardboard don’t get heated. Traces of food and oils can ruin a batch of recycled paper so make sure you tear off and recycle just the clean top of your greasy pizza box. If the cardboard box your burger came in doesn’t have a shiny protective lining and has adsorbed a whole lot of burger juice, this one shouldn't go in the recycling bin either. Keep paper and cardboard clean.
Aluminium and steel
Due to the higher melting point of these metals, food residue will be incinerated during the recycling process. Therefore, it’s good to rinse out your tins and cans to keep your recycling bin neat and clean but some food residue is not a problem for recyclability.
Glass tends to get crushed in the recycling process and in some cases it is then washed. The washing process will remove any residue so, while it’s nice to rinse out your glass items to keep your bin clean, it is not necessary. Just don’t go putting a half full jar of passata or bottle of beer in the recycling bin, there are humans in MRFs and machinery that don’t want to deal with your washing up or the epic smells from fermenting beer residue.
These should be rinsed or wiped out. Not all food residue needs to be removed but if you’re not willing or able to get most of the food residue off, the best place for this recyclable material is probably the landfill bin. Plastics may not necessarily be heated in the recycling process so, while they do in some cases get washed, it’s helpful to MRF operators that we send them relatively clean plastics.
What do you think?
There is always more to learn and uncover when it comes to recycling processes and collection systems. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got questions, comments or insights. What was one thing you learnt from this blog that will change how you approach recycling? Was there anything that confused or perplexed you in here? I’d love to know what to dig into further.