There's nothing like seeing a huge pile of plastic mounting up at a recycling processing centre or transfer station to make you think "why should I bother even putting stuff in my recycling when it's just going to end up in landfill anyway?"
But whatever the difficulties of maintaining a recycling system in a small country like New Zealand, that shouldn't negate the fact that some material is still easy to give a second life.
- Recycling sector warns Government the system is broken
- New Zealand needs to think about not recycling - expert
- Too much confusion about plastics recycling in New Zealand - Commissioner
To get a bit of perspective, I spoke to Glen Jones, commercial manager from EnviroWaste, one of New Zealand's largest waste management companies, to get a sense of where our efforts are best directed.
Avoid unnecessary packaging in the first place
Before we get started, let me make the most obvious point – if you can purchase an item in a reusable container then that's always going to be better than recycling. While supermarkets might be pushing reusable bags, there are many other options in this area. How about buying your beer by bringing your own glass bottle and having it filled up from the taps? Or taking your own mesh bags for fruit, vegetables, and items from the bulk food bins?
Nonetheless, some waste is always going to be generated. But, as Glen Jones points out, some materials have more possibility of being re-used than others. At the top of the list are 'most organics (green waste/food waste), glass, fibre (cardboard and paper), some plastics (PET and HPDE) and aluminium'.
Let's go through each of these to understand why this is the case.
When you think about it, the idea of getting fruit and vegetable scraps and putting them in plastic bags to be buried underground is quite insane (at least, it is to any gardeners out there). If these same scraps were properly composted, within a few months they'd become valuable fertiliser for growing plants.
Of course, having a compost heap isn't the most practical solution for apartment dwellers (though there are at least a few who use a bokashi bin to breakdown their food scraps at home, then empty it every couple of weeks into the compost of a nearby community garden). Fortunately, an easier option is on its way to those in our biggest city, with Auckland Council rolling out a kerbside food scraps collection service; lucky Papakura already has one.
Jones says that removing organic material from refuse is always going to be the best way to minimise your landfill footprint. But if you aren't composting right now, not all is lost. There's always your Insinkerator: "Food waste can be disposed of via your waste disposal system – waste disposal manufacturers even claim that there are environmental benefits to this at some secondary processing centres – and via green waste and food waste collections which are offered by some councils and recycling companies."
"However, if a householder disposes of organic material in refuse and it goes to landfill, not all is lost from a re-use perspective. As rubbish at a landfill degrades, it releases methane gas. At modern landfills, this gas is extracted via a network of wells and converted into electricity. For example, EnviroWaste's Hampton Downs Landfill currently produces sufficient electricity to power the operations at the landfill, as well as supplying the national grid with enough electricity to power approximately 5600 households."
The remarkable thing about recycling the cans that hold soft drink and tinned fruit and vegetables is that the process for turning the metal back into a usable product actually requires less energy than primary production. Recycling aluminium from a can takes only 5 percent of the energy that it takes to extract it from ore. Clean aluminium foil can be recycled too.
This makes it very useful when compared to other items that might be in your kerbside recycling bin. As Jones points out, "aluminium is the most valuable commonly recycled commodity on a per tonne basis".
PET and HDPE plastics
The fact that China no longer takes some varieties of plastic (grades 3-7) shouldn't obscure the fact that two other types are still in demand – specifically PET (recycling symbol #1) and HDPE (recycling symbol #2). In fact, HDPE garners a per tonne return that is second only to aluminium.
The most likely you'll come across these types of plastics as packaging is as soft drink and milk bottles. Basically if you have a plastic bottle then it's probably worth recycling. (For a table showing the different plastic grades and what kinds of items each plastic type is used for, click here)
A month ago, The Spinoff ran a piece by the owner of Happy Cow Milk Company explaining why he was so focused on selling his product in glass rather than plastic bottles. You might wonder why he's so worried about it, when as we've just discussed, the two types of plastic used for bottles are actually quite recyclable. Basically the answer goes back to the production stage: the creation of plastic is far more harmful to the environment than glassmaking. The analysis in this Guardian piece explains the issue and argues for the use of glass over plastic.
Another point in favour of glass is that it is usually recycled within New Zealand. Not only is it made into new jars and bottles, but it can be also used in the construction of roading (as 'glasscrete' and 'glassphalt').
Cardboard and paper
Last but not least are fibre products like cardboard and paper, which can also have a second life as newspaper, tissues, or cardboard trays. However, before you chuck your pizza box in the recycling bin, do scrape the last bits of food off it. If the leftover toppings begin to rot in the bin then the cardboard is less likely to make good material for recycling.
Recycling bin etiquette
The simple truth is that for recycling in New Zealand to work effectively, it takes a little bit of effort from all of us. This means knowing what can be taken in your kerbside bin in your area. For example, in Auckland it causes a lot of problems when plastic bags are put into your recycling bin since they jam up the processing machines (instead these should be collected and put in soft plastics recycling bins at your local supermarket or other retailer). Nor can organic material be put in with standard recycling.
Auckland Council video showing the types of products that can be recycled in its jurisdiction. NB this applies to Auckland only, and predates the introduction of kerbside compost collection in Papakura.
Despite this, Jones often finds problematic materials coming through their system, including "organic material, nappies and plastic bags. From a safety perspective, gas bottles and lithium batteries are also problematic because they have the ability to cause significant damage when placed in a collection vehicle.
"So treat your recycling bin as a recycling bin. Any organic or banned material has the ability of contaminating good recyclable product and can therefore risk the recyclable material having to be thrown away. Washing plastic material prior to placing it in a recycling bin is also a good way of helping to ensure that it's recycled."
While there's no question that the way we approach recycling in New Zealand will require continued work over the decades to come, it's clear that there are plenty of materials that can be effectively diverted from landfill right now. So any time you see an empty bottle, pizza box, or aluminium can lying fallow, it's certainly worth your while to scoop it into a recycling bin, safe in the knowledge that it won't go to waste.