7 common recycling mistakes that people make (+ what to do instead)
Talking enthusiastically about recycling might feel like stepping back into the nineties, when most of us thought (didn’t we?) that recycling was an effective way to combat climate change. (Or was that just me…?)
A few decades on and the pressing issues of the day have most definitely scaled up.
But recycling hasn’t gone away… and it hasn’t stopped being necessary, either.
It’s just been displaced from the top of the podium, where it never really deserved to be. It’s less of an “eco action that make us a champion”, and more just a regular habit that most of us embrace willingly because we know it’s the right thing to do.
If we live in a place with effective recycling infrastructure in place, recycling is the least we can do.
Recycling might be the eco-lite version of living sustainably, but until we move to a world where reusables prevail and single-use packaging isn’t a thing (and I can’t see this happening any time soon…) it’s one of the simplest ways for us to conserve resources.
The trouble is, we all want everything to be recycled, which means we can end up putting non-recycables in the recycling bin. Which of course ends up contaminating that waste stream.
There are a few simple mistakes that happen time and time again.
I’m currently working on a bin tagging waste education project with the local government in my area. I literally walk around the suburbs in the early hours looking in people’s bins, and then leaving them a tag on their bin telling them if they are doing it right, or if there are any small things they need to change.
Having looked in over 2000 bins in the past few weeks, I can tell you the most common mistakes I’ve seen, and how to fix them.
7 common recycling mistakes that people make (+ what to do instead)
Recycling is not the same everywhere in the world. Different countries and even cities have different infrastructure and facilities to sort materials, different collection systems and different markets for materials. It’s always best to check with your local council to find out exactly what can be recycled where you live.
That said, there are some pretty common and universal mistakes that can be avoided.
1. Greasy cardboard and other packaging is not recyclable.
Dirty pizza boxes, burger boxes and chips boxes with grease stains cannot go in the recycling bin. Only cardboard that is clean can be recycled into new cardboard. With greasy cardboard, you can cut any cleans part off (often the lid is clean) and recycle that, but the greasy part needs to go in a compost bin, food waste collection service that accepts cardboard, or the general waste bin.
2. Tissues and paper towels are not recyclable.
Whilst technically paper, tissues and paper towels are already a low grade of paper with short fibres, which makes them unsuitable for recycling.
Paper, unlike metal or glass, isn’t infinitely recyclable. Every cycle shortens the fibres and makes the paper a lower grade, until they become so short that they eventually become unrecyclable.
Instead, tissues, toilet paper and kitchen towel can be composted, or placed in a food waste collection service. Otherwise, they need to go in the general waste bin.
And you might think it goes without saying that used tissues and kitchen towel with food scraps are also not recyclable, but I’ve seen it often enough these past four weeks to know that there are a few that haven’t got the message.
And so the same applies. No, not recyclable. Yes, it’s fine to compost used tissues. The processing and temperatures will kill any germs.
3. Cleaning ‘chux’ cloths and wetwipes are not recyclable.
Those blue-and-white (or sometimes green- or red-and-white) cleaning cloths are made of plastic, not paper, and so are wet wipes, and they cannot go in the recycling bin. Sometimes the material can feel like paper, but a good way to check if something is actually plastic is to try and tear it. Woven plastic like this won’t tear like paper.
The same applies to disposable masks: plastic and not recyclable!
These cleaning cloths are destined for the general waste bin. The best option is to try and find a truly compostable reusable alternative (those Swedish dish cloths are great), or even kitchen towel which is plastic-free.
4. Unrinsed containers can contaminate recycling.
This one is more of a grey area, as it depends what material the container is, what residue is left and how much of it there is. I’ve even seen some councils (not in Perth) say no need to rinse containers.
There a few reasons councils might say that you don’t need to clean containers. It might be because cleaning might be a barrier that stops people recycling. Or it might be that they don’t have to be stored in a facility on 40oC days where leftover milk and cat food is really going to go putrid, fast.
But the truth is, clean recyclables always have more value than dirty ones.
Where you can, give them a quick rinse. You can use the end of the dishwater after doing the dishes so you’re not wasting water. They don’t need to be perfect.
Plastic in particular is one to try and clean as plastic is shredded for recycling, whereas metals and glass are melted to very high temperatures that can burn off some of the contamination.
5. Bioplastic containers are not recyclable.
These are the containers that look like plastic but say they are made from plants. Often the marketing material will say they are compostable AND recyclable. Seeing these two claims together for a synthetic product always raises alarm bells for me.
Whilst the material might be theoretically recyclable, when mixed with regular plastic it is too tricky to tell them apart -most waste sorting facilities do not have the technology to do so. Which means the bioplastic is mixed with regular plastic, but it starts to degrade and undermines the integrity of the recycled product.
This type of plastic is also a problem for commercial composters for the same reason – the technology they use to pull regular plastic contamination out can’t spot the difference. Perth has commercial composting facilities, but still can’t take bioplastic containers that look like plastic. They need to go in the general waste bin.
6. Takeaway coffee cups are not recyclable.
Plenty of people still think coffee cups are made of paper and are therefore recycable. But they are plastic-lined, have a lid made of a different material (usually non-expanded polystyrene which is not itself recyclable) which is usually not separated, and tend to be unrinsed (and often half full of coffee).
Coffee cups need to go in the general waste bin.
(There is a scheme in Perth where you return used coffee cups to a store and they are “recycled”. They are actually mixed with plastic agricultural waste – 10% cups to 90% plastic waste – to make low grade plastic bollards etc. In my book, that’s not really recycling. That’s burying it under the plastic I mean carpet I mean plastic.)
7. ‘Recyclable’ is not the same as ‘actually able to be recycled’.
Lots of things are theoretically recyclable, and might be recycled in other places, but that doesn’t mean they are recyclable where we live. Or they might be recyclable, but not through kerbside recycling.
The specifics of this will vary where you live. The following items often contaminate Perth kerbside recycling bins so it might be worth checking out the rules for your location too:
- eWaste (anything with a plug): these items can be recycled, but you can’t just pop a printer in your recycling bin if you live in Perth. These items need to be dropped off at a waste depot, or TV and computer items and accessories can also be taken to Officeworks for recycling free of charge.
- Batteries: these are hazardous and can cause fires in trucks that compact waste. Button batteries are also a choking hazard and cause internal burns if they escape the bin and end up in the environment. They can be recycled, but need to be dropped off to a collection point. Often libraries, shopping centres and schools will collect them, as well as the local waste depot.
- Long-life UHT cartons: the ones that are foil-lined and are typically for products stored in the pantry (long-life milk, juice, coconut water and stock) are not recyclable in Perth, or anywhere in Australia as there are no specialist facilities to process them. In other parts of the world, they have a better fate, but in Perth they end up in the general waste bin.
- Textiles: another item that can be recycled, just not in the kerbside recycling bin here in Perth. Clothing can be taken to H&M stores for recycling, and some local councils have collection points, or Upparel will collect textiles from your home for recycling for a fee.
A final word on recycling. With the current extreme weather events happening worldwide, be it wild winds or savage fires or unprecedented flooding, it would be easy to think that recycling is not going to help.
And you’d be right – recycling isn’t going to fix climate catastrophes.
But it is helping to solve a different problem – the problem that society uses too many resources, and doesn’t re-use enough of those resources.
Plus, getting better at recycling is within the grasp of most of us. Once we know the recycling rules, it’s a pretty low-fuss habit to assimilate into our routine.
So recycling has its place, just as voting out climate-denying governments, and boycotting unethical companies, and protesting, and writing letters to politicians and business owners and public figures also have their place.
Getting our recycling right is an easy first step. But of course, it’s just the start…
Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you feel confident about recycling correctly? Any of these you didn’t know? Any interesting quirks to the recycling system where you live? Or are you still waiting for kerbside recycling to come to your area? Any other tips to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
I have taken to questioning anything that claims recycle ability of its product. Who recycles it ? What do they do with the stuff they collect? what is it made into? What percentage of their product is virgin plastic? Fast becoming a hardened cynic
I think this is a good way to be! Something being permitted into a recycling bin is just one part of the story. Where it goes and how it’s processed and what it ends up as are all very valid questions. For example, in Perth glass can go into the recycling bin… and gets crushed into road base. In my view, that’s not recycling. That’s hiding it under the carpet I mean in the road. Which is why ultimately, I prefer the zero waste philosophy and goal…
Glass and metal are melted at very high temperatures. All organic matter will evaporate at 650deg C, so food contaminants on glass and metal are a non-issue for recycling
Hi Meredith! Yes this is true. But another reason some councils and recycling/materials sorting facilities ask for people to rinse their containers is because they have people working at the facilities, and these people would prefer not to go home from work covered in rancid milk and fermented cat food. Plus if these items are being stored, or shipped overseas in containers, they can become a health hazard. Rinsing containers is never going to make the people who handle the items or the buyers of the materials any worse off, and it might just make things a whole lot better.
Instead, toilet paper and kitchen paper can be composted – umm, you don’t really mean used toilet paper can be composted – do you! I think I must have read something incorrectly! : )
If you have a composting toilet, you can :) I created a composting toilet using a white bucket – removable toilet seat, added a broken up dry coir block and use a small spade to mix everything after use…surprising great compost – that doesn’t smell – especially if you wee in it – everythign gets activated nicely and smells of the earth. “Humanure” can be used on fruit trees not vege patches. :)
Very true, Kam! I have a few friends who have experimented with setting these up, but I do not have the space… Maybe one day!
Well with the right setup Gail it actually can be composted, but perhaps that’s a conversation for another day ;) It seems to be surprisingly common that people take the final sheets off the roll and add them to the recycling bin. Or leave them stuck to the roll. Mysterious habit!
Are those plant based plastics such as plant based bags for compost bins and which are labelled home compostable still ok for the home compost? I read the info on the products but and look for home compostable but am worried I’m being misled. I recycle soft and hard plastics though try not to buy in the first place but am finding very difficult to keep on top of the different recycling requirements
Hi Amanda, great question! If they are labelled “certified home compostable” and have the logo and standard on them, then in theory yes, they can go in your home compost bin. But the testing standards say they will break down in home compost in 12 months, so I don’t put them in as I haven’t got that long to wait! I try to dig my bins out 2-3 months after I start them, and I don’t want bits of partially decomposed plastic in there. We had to stop accepting them at the Rutland Community Composting Hub because they didn’t break down fast enough.
I’m also not sure I’d want that material in my compost as I’m not entirely trusting what the residues are… That’s my preference. There is too much natural organic matter for me to want to compost this stuff, and I don’t come across it often. But if I had one and there was no other option except landfill, then I’d stick it in my compost.
Actually, commercial composters have similar issues with timeframes. The ones here in Perth, which use windrows (big open air strips of compost) will only accept the home compostable bags, and no other form of compostable plastic even if it says “certified industrial compostable” or “certified home compostable”. Unless it’s a home compostable dog poo bag or caddy liner it’s not accepted as it just can’t break down within the timeframe, and there are also the issues with some of the products looking like regular plastic and being removed as a contaminant.
I hope that helps!
Hey Lindsay, I am intrigued about commercial composters in Perth not being able to compost bio-plastics. I have been helping to sort waste at a local community market and I’ve put a lot of the compostable plastics into the compost bin. Have I been misled? Thank you in advance :)
A Great company helping to reduce single use plastics is ZeroCo. I have been using them for more than a year, the products are great, and the refill pouches are sent back to them for… you guessed it……. refilling!
Hi Jenny, there are some great and innovative companies out there. (I’ve also tried Zero Co products – I found they worked well but a few of the scents were too strong for me! (Great if you like strong scents though, as many do.)
Change is coming, if not quite as fast as we would all like…
I moved to a small rural country town and they just don’t put any effort into at least give the people the choice to recycle cardboard, paper, plastics and of course glass jars, glass bottles and cans.
All goes to landfill where it is wasted resources plus contributing to greenhouse gases
Hi Monika! Not sure where you are, but I know in Australia the cost to provide infrastructure to rural communities is often too high to justify offering the services. And of course it needs to be different, but when you have a government that doesn’t value these things, it is difficult. I’d love to see their priorities change in the near future. It’s very disheartening.
Hi Lindsay, thank you for all the hard work that you do! I’ve read that H&M only recycle 0.1% of textiles donated. I’m planning to use Upparel next time I have used textiles that are beyond wearability/usefulness.
Hi Jenna, well that wouldn’t surprise me at all. H&M do the least possible when it comes to sustainability in terms of action, but they spend a lot of money telling people how great they are at it. When your entire business model is built around over-consumption and you don’t pay workers fairly, you aren’t sustainable, it’s that simple. I sometimes donate things to H&M because I think they need to be accountable to the textile waste they help create and pay the costs involved, but I think Upparel are doing a much better job.
I’m in Melbourne and I thought it was okay to rinse out my long life milk cartons and put them in the recycle bin? That’s a drat if I can’t as I use these all the time.
Hi Jenni! So this has been coming up a lot from people in SA and even Brisbane too, and it’s a really grey area. In short, there is definitely no UHT Tetra Pak recycling facility in Australia. Which means if they are to be recycled, they have would have to be shipped offshore for processing.
I’ve spoken to a few people about this and the consensus seems to be that they are either removed at the sorting plant and landfilled (the reason that might happen is that sometimes councils want to encourage residents to do a behaviour ready for when something is recyclable in future), or baled with paper and cardboard and shipped overseas.
But what happens when they go overseas is really unclear. In WA our paper goes to Asia. I’ve been told that the UHT Tetra Paks are pulled by by hand at the other end by one recycler as they are a contaminant – but no-one seems to know what happens to them after that.
Recyclers are businesses trying to get money for their product – they sell the bales of paper/cardboard and don’t especially care what happens to them once they leave our shores. If they are going with bales of paper/cardboard, I’m not confident they are being recycled at the other end.
I’d love to be proved wrong…
In WA we ship our UHT juice boxes from the Containers for Change scheme to Spain for proper recycling. If there was a facility in Asia I’m sure we’d send them there as it would be much cheaper. The whole thing seems incredibly vague…
i think that UHT containers can be simply minced up and then squashed and pressed to make corrugated roofing panels. This is in Brazil??.
it works because the mash has aluminium, and fibre from the cardboard and plastic that melts and glues to whole thing together.
Why are bottle tops not recyclable..it confuses me?
Hi Betty! Well they ARE recyclable, but not through the co-mingled kerbside bin as they are too small for the machinery. They can be dropped off to a few places for recycling though – in Perth that includes the Containers for Change depot points, and some recycling centres.
In Canberra, the Return-It people will collect the plastic bottle tops for another charity that can re-use them.
Return-It pay you cash for returned bottles and cans
*in South Australia*, UHT long life containers can go in the yellow bin for recycling
UHT, Tetra Pak Containers:
The Tetra Pak plastic parts (lid and spout) should be removed and collected in a clear plastic bottle along with other bits of small plastic and once the clear plastic bottle is full it is able to be placed in the yellow lidded recycling bin. The remaining Tetra Pak container can be placed in the yellow lidded bin.
>tissues, toilet paper and kitchen towel can be composted, <
but does this paper have a high level of dioxin from bleaching?