21 June 2018


By Steph McCann, WWF-Australia

I'm used to talking trash.

Whether it's bubble wrap, takeaway containers or used coffee bags, I'm constantly fielding questions like 'can I recycle this?' and 'which bin do I use?' My WWF colleagues and I are certainly not alone in wondering these things.

Australians want to do the right thing, but due to the complexity of the plastic multiverse and the sheer number of plastic products we use each day, we’re in a conundrum. Even with the best intentions, it's easy to accidentally send valuable materials to landfill or to contaminate truckloads of recycling.

Though there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, here are a few tips that I've learned:

Reduce your use

Above all else, minimise the amount of plastic that you bring into your life in the first place. Buy from places that give you the choice to shop plastic free or to bring your own containers, like farmers markets and bulk food stores.

Fruit in basket CC0 jill111 / Pixabay

Go one step further, and ask your favourite shops to make this change. Now that the two major supermarkets have banned single-use plastic bags (hats off to Woolworths and Coles!) the momentum appears to be growing.

Ask questions

The next important step is learning how recycling in your local area works. Most councils have their own kerbside recycling services, policies and practices for sorting our commingled bins (the ones you put plastic and glass in).

Kerbside bin CC0 StockSnap / Pixabay

Planet Ark’s national council database provides a lot of info and can also help you contact your council's Waste Services Hotline, staffed with experts to answer waste questions relevant to your council. They’ve also developed a really user-friendly app to bring much of this information right to your fingertips. It’s called Recyclesmart.

Contamination frustration

Now, with your new-found enthusiasm for recycling, be vigilant about understanding contamination. In other words, what can and can’t go into your commingled bin? Even some products made from recyclable materials can contaminate recycling when it's being processed.

Food waste bin CC0 Patricia Valerio / Unsplash

Here are a few common items that have tripped us all up:

  • Small plastic items like bottle lids can be recycled, but individually may slip through recycling machines, so put them into a larger plastic bottle before adding them to your commingled bin.
  • Aluminium foil is a valuable and infinitely recyclable material. In small pieces, it can cause problems during processing, so wait until you've got enough to create a replica shield before adding it to your commingled bin in a lump.
  • Polystyrene and cellophane are both a definite no-no for recycling. Cellophane (the stuff food hampers are often wrapped in) may look like soft plastic, but it cannot be recycled with your soft plastics collection.

As you can see, Australia’s recycling system is far from perfect (or simple). The good news is pressure on our domestic infrastructure means there’s an opportunity for big change. WWF is working on it, and we’re dedicated to finding innovative solutions to reduce our reliance on plastic.

In the meantime, every one of us can do our bit. It all comes down to making more conscious shopping decisions and changing our recycling habits. When we throw something in our general waste bin, even though it may be out of sight and out of mind, your plastic will still be haunting landfill for hundreds of years, or worse, end up in a whale’s stomach.

Remember, you are part of the solution.