Are we rubbish at recycling?

By Vicki Anderson Default Admin | 06 Jun 2020 05:00

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It's rubbish behaviour.

A cow's stomach, LPG cylinders, guns, swords, axes, syringes, used condoms, sex toys, nappies, dead pets, a toilet - just some items Christchurch residents have put in their yellow recycling bins.

But it's not just Christchurch residents who are trying to recycle dead cats - it's a national disgrace.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to act now to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

Research by the Waste Management Institute of New Zealand (WasteMINZ) analysed household rubbish and recycling at 867 homes in eight regions for its report, The Truth about Plastic Recycling in Aotearoa New Zealand, released in February.

It found that, nationally, 41 per cent of items could have been recycled but instead went to landfill.

The main reasons are confusion about what can be recycled, and that we don't understand recycling labels.

The latter is no surprise as each year 181 million containers in New Zealand lack visible information on recyclability and 46 million bottles are covered by plastic sleeves which prevent them from being recycled properly.

Items accepted for recycling vary between regions but there is a growing call to standardise New Zealand's kerbside waste and recycling collections.

''The Ministry for the Environment is working with local government and the waste sector to investigate ways to standardise kerbside waste and recycling collections, in order to increase consistency and reduce confusion for households,'' says Associate Minister for the Environment, Eugenie Sage. ''This is at an early stage, with no decisions taken.''


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Associate Minister for the Environment, Eugenie Sage. MONIQUE FORD/STUFF

WasteMINZ has been part of the Ministry for the Environment-initiated project. It is in draft form at the moment.

''One of the main motivations of the project is to improve the quality of the materials accepted at kerbside collections and maintain the value of them from the time they are put in the recycling bin by the householder to the time they are received for recycling by the reprocessor,'' says WasteMINZ chief executive, Janine Brinsdon.

''This can be done through a number of measures and one of them is to have a standardised list of materials accepted at kerbside recycling across the country.

''This would reduce householder confusion about what is and isn’t recyclable in their region and would mean national messaging could be carried out. It would also increase the capture of items that can be recycled but are often mistakenly put in the bin to go to landfill instead.''

Liam Prince, one half of the No Waste Nomads of zero-waste roadshow The Rubbish Trip, and deputy chair of Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance, says standardising recycling collection nationwide is an ''opportunity for New Zealand''.

''We could process more onshore with a standardised collection so costs can be shared nationwide. If it was more centralised I think it might reduce costs to ratepayers.''


Anything that makes it easier for people to recycle is a good thing.

EcoCentral commercial and compliance manager Averil Stevenson says staff at EcoSort - where yellow bin recycling from around Canterbury is sorted, baled and later sold as reclaimed material - regularly roll their eyes at what some people consider recyclable.

''We get dead animals quite often in the recycling. The things that make us recoil and get quite vocal are the things that could hurt the team: medical waste, syringes, axes, swords, guns, nappies, car batteries, LPG cylinders. These can be very dangerous for the staff.''

People should remember ''someone’s mother, son or father works here and is being put at risk by having to handle these items''.


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Rob Wilson is operations manager at EcoCentral , a recycling depot dealing with a lot of contamination. JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

EcoCentral operates three transfer stations around Christchurch, accepting recycling and refuse from both domestic and commercial customers.

''EcoCentral is 100 per cent owned by the Christchurch City Council through its holding company CCHL,'' she says. ''We operate the second-largest recycling facility in New Zealand... and we operate the EcoShop, which would have to be the jewel in our crown as far as waste minimisation initiatives go.''

The best and simplest way to improve our situation is for individual residents to take responsibility for their recycling, she says.

''Make sure they know what can go in the wheelie bin, make sure they follow the criteria, if they can’t, that’s okay they need to put it in the red bin,'' says Stevenson.

If you are unsure if something can be recycled it is ''much better'' to put it in the rubbish than contaminate the recycling.

''Clean containers, don’t tie recycling in a bag, put all lids into the red bin. Don’t put soft plastics in the yellow bin,'' says Stevenson.

''The plastic used to make the bottle is not the same as the plastic used to make the lid. With the lid still attached, it's harder to compress the bottle as part of our baling process. The lids are too small and fall through the baling equipment and can contaminate the glass recycling stream.''

With the lid still attached, there's a risk the bottle or container can still hold some liquid and this can reduce the paper recycling to mush.

Larger lids will get caught up in the paper and contaminate the paper recycling.

Before a bottle can be recycled the lid needs to be removed and it is important to remove the lids from glass bottles and jars also.


You may not be burying barrels of toxic waste at the bottom of your garden but your daily ''wishcycling'' - when you want something to be recyclable but it’s not - is still contributing to the deterioration of the planet.

EcoCentral operations manager Rob Wilson has bad news for wishcyclers who continue to ignore requests to separate their waste correctly as the cost of dumping contaminated recycling approaches $1 million.

The Christchurch City Council empties 160,249 recycling bins.

It is refusing to empty yellow bins containing general rubbish and will confiscate bins of repeat offenders.

Council manager resource and recovery Ross Trotter says for the 12 months to June 1, there were 8731 initial offences.

''Our collection drivers view the contents of a bin being emptied via a camera in their cab, along with checking bins if moving them to an accessible location for collection. We also conduct spot auditing and our bin checking team have resumed this week,'' says Trotter.

After a second offence, 941 households received a first warning letter and, following a third offence, 249 received final warnings.

''On a second occurrence of contamination, the bin will be left with a contamination tag again, and an educational letter will be sent to the property. On a third occurrence, the bin will be tagged again with a warning letter issued to both the property occupants and if required the property owner, advising that if contamination occurs again the bin will be removed. On the fourth instance, the bin is flagged for removal from the service.''

You can recycle clean and loose items including soft-drink bottles, glass bottles, milk bottles, aluminium cans, meat trays, ice-cream containers, family-sized yoghurt tubs (but not single serve tubs because they are too small for the sorting machinery), tin, clean paper and cardboard.

Don't squash items. Take the lids off and throw them in the red bin. No containers bigger than 3L and only ones marked with one, two or five. Food waste and garden organics should go in your green bin.

Wilson says the problem is escalating. During 2019, just 23 truckloads of recycling were so contaminated they were rejected and sent to landfill.

''Last Monday alone we rejected 22. We just have to keep trying,'' he says.

''It is costing everyone, whether you are a ratepayer or a renter you're paying for it. It's crazy. You can check on the council website, look at the sticker inside your bin or use the Wheelie Bins app.''

If your neighbour doesn't do the right thing, your bin gets contaminated by default. If people haven't been careful with their recycling, it means the lot will go to landfill.

''Contamination in our recycling, that's a big challenge. There's a lot of nappies, it's revolting. It's duckshooting season at the moment, so we get a lot of duck carcasses, car parts, you'll get a tyre, springs, outboard motors, chainsaw, if it can fit in that bin... someone will try,'' says Wilson. ''Some people just don't care. There's a lot of laziness around it.''

No, you can't ''wishcycle'' your old toaster, the trousers your child's outgrown, food or an old working chainsaw in the yellow wheelie bin.

''Some people, if they get a new jug, they'll think the old one is still OK, so they put it in the recycling bin thinking it will just be taken out at the plant for the shop but it doesn't work like that.''

Anything that could be reused should be taken to the recycle centre at the transfer station.

''It goes from our transfer station to the EcoShop where it can be reused and resold. It is a good system. If we can reuse it we should be because it doesn't go to landfill.''

Wilson gets a sinking feeling when he sees seagulls hovering in the air above recycling trucks.

''Seagulls don't turn up to recycling, they turn up to rubbish,'' he says.


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''Seagulls don't turn up to recycling, they turn up to rubbish,'' EcoCentral's Rob Wilson says. JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF


EcoCentral's main concern during the pandemic has been maintaining an essential service to those who required it and making sure its employees were resourced adequately and felt safe to be at work.

Problems arose, Wilson says, when staff were put in danger by some who put ''used plastic gloves, face masks and other personal protective equipment'' in their recycling bins.

''Everything stopped during Covid and people put everything into the recycling bin. Now we are trying to get people to do the right thing again but at the same time push the message that we can recycle for free, your rubbish is someone's treasure.''

Stevenson agrees. ''The biggest difficulty has been the public’s reaction to the very short period they were allowed to put waste into their recycling bins,. The recycling from some areas was pretty nominal to begin with but with the public’s perception that waste in the yellow bin is okay, the problem has spiralled out of control.

''Markets are making it clear that they will not tolerate any increase in contamination in the recycling we export, so we have been having to add additional staff to the sorting lines to keep the contamination down as well as rejecting the worst loads to ensure it does not get close to our good recycling.''

Sage says Covid-19 has had a widespread impact on commodities markets and border access globally.

''Some low-value recycling materials collected at kerbside had nowhere to go except landfill, as there were no end markets for these materials,'' she says. ''This issue is intermittent and ongoing even now.''

Now New Zealand has transitioned down through the alert levels, ''in almost all parts of the country recycling has resumed''.

''If people need to remind themselves about what to recycle and how to in their area, they should check with their local council.''

The average household uses 941 plastic containers or bottles a year.

''Many people are confused by what to do with soft plastics. I always say this; if you can scrunch it in your hand it goes in the red bin,'' says Wilson.

Each year 68 million drink bottles (recyclable plastic 1) end up in landfill and so do 29 million dairy containers (recyclable plastic 2).

Look at the bottom of a plastic bottle and you'll find a triangle with a number from one to seven.

''If it has 1, 2 or 5 in the triangle, you can wash it and put it in the yellow bin but take the lid off and put that in the red bin,'' says Wilson. ''Numbers 3, 6 and 7 go in the red bin.''

If you are still unsure: ''Just put it in the red bin. Not recycling is better than contaminating the recycling.''


After a music festival or concert, it's common to find Dr Sharon McIver gleefully sorting waste long after the last note has faded.

But with the cancellation of all large-scale events because of Covid-19, it has led to changes in the way her Christchurch-based social enterprise Our Daily Waste (ODW) operates.

Started in 2012, Our Daily Waste has provided consultancy services to organisations nationwide.

Recently she's devised a Waste Warrant of Fitness to assist business owners to adapt their waste system to their post-lockdown needs.

''The Covid-19 virus has affected the way we operate in business, and the recycling and waste industry will change dramatically due to the effects.''

The Waste WOF is designed to ''help organisations to future-proof their waste system and save on long-term costs''.


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Our Daily Waste Ltd director Sharon McIver has created a successful post-lockdown Waste WOF for local businesses. (File photo). SUPPLIED

It's a dirty job but someone has to do it.

Having hand-sorted thousands of waste bins, McIver, operating as an independent, has used her experience to develop innovations such as customised signage and better event practices that are at the cutting edge of waste reduction.

“With the rise in waste levies, landfill fees will only ever go up, and I expect that contaminated recycling will be more likely to be rejected, which will then be charged as landfill.''

One client, Tourism Holdings Ltd, has adopted a number of McIver’s recommendations.

At the Christchurch branch an ODW staff member, trained in health and safety practices, sorts recycling for a few hours each week, and diverts any reusable items to charities.

''The branch has saved an average of three tonnes of landfill a month with a 28 per cent reduction in fees, and reusable items have been gifted to more than 30 charities, including homeless and animal shelters,'' says McIver.


Every year Kiwis send 157,398 tonnes of food to landfill, roughly three supermarket trolleys per household, all of which could have been eaten. It is costing us money but is also bad for the environment.

One person who sees how much food we waste first-hand is Christel Price of Wellington-based food rescue Kaibosh.

It provides food to charities, soup kitchens, marae, foodbanks, residential facilities and other essential social service providers.

Price says with a reduced number of staff because of social distancing, it still delivered more food than ever during the pandemic, with the usual 30,000kg of food each month leaping to 52,000kg, or the equivalent of 148,600 meals.

''Usually we deliver to 93 charities but some were closed so it was reduced to 32, but there were a lot of people in need,'' she says. ''Supermarkets were really supportive of us during that period, they were working really hard to help us during the lockdown even though they were really under a lot of pressure themselves.''

She recommended Love Food Hate Waste, run by 60 councils from around New Zealand alongside WasteMINZ and Wanaka Wastebusters.

It offers tips and recipes to help you reduce food waste and save money. Meals are designed to be zero waste, nutritious and affordable.


A familiar sight to many Canterbury school children in her quirky decorated straw hat, Lesley Ottey of EcoEducate is an eco-educator with more than 29 years experience.

''During lockdown a lot of people were very confronted by their waste,'' she says.

Each week she sees 1000 children across three council districts: ''The Waimak, a wee bit of Selwyn and Christchurch''.

Because different councils recycle differently, she has different teaching plans.

''I'm just crossing a river but it can make all the difference. In Kaiapoi they still separate bottles out, but they don't in Christchurch.''


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Lesley Ottey and Julie Nalder from Eco Educate. ERIN TASKER/STUFF

Most children have a better knowledge of recycling than adults.

''I have the privilege of working with the future. They question everything, 'where's the recycling bin?' Or they say 'that's not clean enough'. The kids coming through are switched on.''

''The lockdown has been a huge turning point globally. We can't lose that,'' she says.

''Stop looking at recycling as rubbish and start treating it as a resource. It is worth something. Reuse as much as you can.''

While educating people at a transfer station, Ottey recently found a cow's stomach in an Ashburton recycling bin.

''Last week there was an actual toilet in the recycling bin. People put nappies in because they think 'they can be composted' - hello, recycling and compost are two different things.

''Unwashed dog food and sardine cans are my worst. If you can't be bothered cleaning them just put it in the red bin for landfill. I would rather you do that than contaminate the recycling.''

Ottey agrees recycling should be standardised nationwide.

''It's confusing. In different parts of New Zealand you leave tops on, other parts it's tops off,'' she says.

''I'm a waste educator and when I travel, my husband will ask 'can I recycle this'... I'll try to look it up in the region we are in and sometimes it is so hard to tell we just take it home with us.

''The time really is now to think differently for the future. There's one school, just by doing a few small things like a worm farm, they could save $5000 a year.'''

Children ''as young as 4'' often know more about recycling than adults.

''The adults... most want to do the right thing, the odd one thinks 'it's too hard, I can't be bothered, why should I? They think it's everybody else's problem, but we are all part of this bigger jigsaw puzzle.''

Source: Stuff

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