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Wishful thinking about what can be recycled is an expensive mistake

By Susan Edmunds, Simon O'Connor | 31 Jul 2018 09:00

Recycling 31 July

New Zealanders are "wish-cycling" – putting things in their recycling bins on the off-chance they are acceptable – and it's costing councils dearly.

Councils around the country offer kerbside recycling systems. Some run the entire programme themselves, while others contract some or all of it to a waste management firms.

The vast majority of the plastic, paper and glass collected is sold into overseas markets.

It's an expensive business.

Paul Evans, chief executive of waste management industry body WasteMinz, said councils would spend tens of millions of dollars each year. Recycling collection costs Wellington City Council $6 million annually. Christchurch said its cost was commercially sensitive.

"It's a big investment by the local government sector."


Evans said, in Auckland, about 10 per cent of each household recycling bin was "contamination" – items that people had put in hoping for the best, but which could not be recycled.

"They're looking at something thinking 'I hope it is [recyclable]'. It's wish-cycling. They look at a coffee cup and think, 'Surely it must be able to be recycled,' but it can't."

Some contamination could affect a whole load of recycling, he said. "People put in lawn clippings or food waste and it goes through the recycling and causes an issue. Nappies turn up in recycling a hell of a lot. That's a health and safety issue, too."

People wrapping recycling in plastic bags also created problems. In many parts of the country, a plastic bag going through recycling machinery can cause it to jam.

It all added cost and time to the process, Evans said.

"If 10 per cent of the material coming through Auckland is contamination, that's tens of thousands of tonnes a year. All of that then has to be paid for to go to the landfill. We are talking millions of dollars in contamination added because people are putting stuff in there that they shouldn't."

Ross Trotter, manager of solid waste at the Christchurch City Council, said about 35 to 45 tonnes of steel appliances and tools a month were put recycling bins from residents thinking they were doing the right thing.

"These items often cause breakdowns on the line if the material is not identified and removed in time, which adds to the cost of processing the material."

He said clothing was also a culprit for breakdowns. "Unfortunately, clothing put in a recycling bin is unable to be accepted for reuse once it has been in a recycling truck."

Thomas Neitzert, AUT professor of engineering, said Auckland's habit of "co-mingling" everything into one recycling bin added to the contamination issues.

"Paper gets wet, it has glass shards in there, that reduces the value of the various items.

"Even if they stay in the country they are not being taken by the paper mills because the glass shards are damaging… that's why most of the stuff that gets collected goes straight overseas. No one here could process it."

New Zealand was one of the worst for recycling in the developed world, he said. "If you go to London, people have far more different bins and they are happy to put stuff in separate bins."

In Wellington, Emily Taylor-Hall, manager of waste operations, said about 7 per cent ot 8 per cent of recycling collected was contaminated.

"We collect glass separately and colour sort at kerbside, which means the rest of the recyclable materials will not be contaminated with glass pieces and therefore is easier to recycle in New Zealand or overseas.

"Obviously there is a cost to contamination – for the proportion that is then considered waste destined for landfill, it adds an additional $160,000 per annum on top of the processing costs."


If cleaner waste could be collected, there would be more options to process it in New Zealand, Neitzert said.

But as it is, we are at the mercy of international markets.

The contamination has become more of a pressing and expensive concern because one of those big international markets, China, has closed its doors. It stopped taking 24 types of waste earlier this year.

Evans said some of it had been able to be sent to other parts of Southeast Asia instead but stockpiles were still building around the country. The ban has dramatically reduced the amount that recyclers can get for the waste.

New Zealand can process about half of the paper and cardboard that is collected here but only a small proportion of the plastic – with no significant local processing of type three to seven plastics.

WasteMinz said paper and plastics were usually two of the most valuable kerbside commodities for recyclers in terms of revenue.

But the large falls in price, and the difficulty in finding markets for these grades of material is severely affecting the economic viability of local collections.

Customs NZ's latest figures show only 125,904kg of plastic waste was sent to China in the first quarter of this year, compared to 2.7 million kilograms in the same period of 2017.

The value of that waste fell from $1.7m to little more than $100,000.

WasteMinz said mixed paper and plastics could theoretically still be imported into China, but they were required to have very low levels of contamination, only about 0.5 per cent. Kerbside recycling could usually not produce contamination that low.

Taylor-Hall said more infrastructure was needed.

"We have a glass processing plant in Auckland, paper mills throughout New Zealand and clear PET recycling here in the Wellington region.

"What determines whether materials can go to on-shore recyclers is how it is collected at kerbside. If glass isn't separated at the kerb, then the paper mills can't take it due to the damage that glass fragments do to the equipment.

"OI (glass recycling) needs glass colour separated before it reaches the plant – in Wellington, we do this at the kerbside. We do need more recycling infrastructure for mixed plastics in New Zealand. How that comes about needs to be done with the assistance of central government."

A report to the Invercargill City Council this week said Christchurch City Council was bailing out its recycling company as the fall in revenue from the sale of recyclables meant it was no longer able to meet operating costs.


Evans said results would be better if there was consistency across the country in what could be recycled.

"Everyone has a slightly different way, and from an end user perspective that is confusing. Most people who put contamination in genuinely do care, they want to do the right thing but they are just not sure what that is.

"At a national level, we need better communication around this stuff."

Work was underway on a recycling label in Australia and New Zealand, which manufacturers could put on their products to tell consumers what their options were to dispose of them.

But it would be voluntary and likely only be adopted by progressive manufacturers, Evans said.

In other parts of the world there was more focus on product stewardship, so manufacturers had to take responsibility for what they produced when it reached the end of its life too.

That made them invest in producing things that were easier to recycle, or with better quality material that would last.

Neitzert said it should be more expensive to send things to landfill. "If you can get rid of it easily, there's no incentive to put effort into trying to recycle."

Wasteminz produced a discussion paper that described the system as "fundamentally broken", relying on councils and recyclers cleaning up whatever products were put on the market.

"It requires enormous effort to achieve good clean streams of useable material – and this is not always possible.

"There is therefore too much cost and not enough value for the present model to be sustainable. It has only worked up until now because China was taking the environmental impacts – which they are no longer prepared to do."

It recommended, among other things, slowing the sorting lines at recycling centres to help reduce contamination, and educating the public.

It said councils might also need to consider stopping collection of material for which there were insufficient markets, such as type three to seven plastics.

"Unless solutions are found urgently, material collected for recycling could end up being landfilled. This would damage the public trust in our kerbside recycling systems that has been built up over many years."

Waste management firms contacted declined to comment.


Aerosol cans if you're in Central Hawke's Bay, Central Otago, Hamilton, Horowhenua, Kaikoura, Kawerau, Marlborough, Nelson, Ruapehu, Tararua, Taupo, Waimate, Wairoa, Waitomo, Wellington.

Metal jar lids if you're in Ashburton, Christchurch, Grey, Horowhenua, Hutt, Mackenzie, New Plymouth, Ruapehu, Selwyn, Stratford, Tararua, Timaru, Waimakariri, Waimate, Waitomo, Westland.

Plastic bags if you're in Auckland, Buller, Carterton, Central Hawke's Bay, Clutha, Dunedin, Gisborne, Grey, Hamilton, HastingsC, Hauraki, HuttC, Manawatu, Masterton, Matamata-Piako, Napier, Nelson, New Plymouth, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Porirua, Queenstown Lakes, Rotorua Lakes, Ruapehu, South Taranaki, South Waikato, South Wairarapa, Stratford, Tararua, Tasman, Taupo, Thames-Coromandel, Timaru, Waimate, Waipa, Wairoa, Waitomo, Wellington, Westland, Whangarei.

Tetra Pak cartons if you're in Carterton, Central Hawke's Bay, Central Otago, Clutha, Dunedin, Gisborne, Grey, Hamilton, Hastings, Hauraki, Horowhenua, Hurunui, Hutt, Kaikoura, Mackenzie, Manawatu, Marlborough, Masterton, Matamata-Piako, Napier, Nelson, New Plymouth, Opotiki, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Porirua, Queenstown Lakes, Rotorua Lakes, Ruapehu, Selwyn, South Taranaki, South Waikato, South Wairarapa, Stratford, Tararua, Tasman, Taupo, Thames-Coromandel, Timaru, Waimate, Waipa, Wairoa, Waitomo, Wellington, Westland, Whangarei.



Polystyrene trays

Takeaway coffee cups

Source: Consumer NZ

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