29 June 2021


By Steph McCann, WWF-Australia

Can you recycle a light bulb? What’s the easiest way to recycle? How is plastic even recycled? And what do those symbols on the back of the carton even MEAN?!

Hi, I’m Steph and when I hold my Trash Talk sessions on WWF-Australia’s social media channels, these are the kind of questions I get! (Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to be in the loop on our next Trash Talk session).

Keen to know more about the dos and dont’s of all things recycling? Well, National Recycling Week isn't too far away, so I thought I’d share some of my favourite questions our supporters asked and share the answers with you below.

How should you recycle aerosol cans?

Aerosol can. Photo by Jean-Louis Paulin on Unsplash

Empty aerosol cans sometimes go into your commingled bin (the one for glass and plastic bottles, aluminium and steel cans). Check if your council accepts aerosol cans by looking here. If they don’t accept them, Planet Ark can help you find the nearest recycling centre for you to drop it off.

Is it true that if you don’t rinse, say a yoghurt pot, it contaminates the whole load?

Short answer is that remnants of food are ok to put in the recycling bin. Just don’t throw your takeaway container filled with last night’s spaghetti!

Is it possible to recycle rubber?

If you’re talking about erasers, rubber bands, hot water bottles etc.- unfortunately, to my knowledge, there’s no great collection facility for these right now. Tyres can and absolutely should be recycled – so next time you’re getting your tyres changed, ask your mechanic if they recycle old tyres.

What’s the best way to recycle small plastic lids?

Generally, plastic lids are too small for current recycling technology to sort and are not the same type of plastic as the container they come on. However, some lids are recyclable, so it’s always best to check with your council for any specific local advice about recycling plastic lids. Best thing you can do is look for more sustainable alternatives. Or here's an organisation with tips to recycle lids specifically!

How many useful objects, like sunglasses, can you make out of rubbish or litter?

ReefCycle sunglasses made from gill net
ReefCycle sunglasses made from gill net © WWF-Australia

Plastic’s an amazing product - it can be flexible or rigid, yet it’s light, durable and waterproof. That's why it has become so widely used. At the moment, the major limiting factor on creating new products out of plastic rubbish is demand – if the demand for products made from recycled plastic increased, then the capacity to process goods could be scaled-up. Companies like Replas are turning recycled soft plastics into amazing furniture to help close the plastics loop.

I’m curious to know about the plastic on pads and tampons?

What a fantastic question! The packaging that these sanitary products come in (the bags and the individual pad or tampon wrapping) are all recyclable in a soft plastics collection (RedCycle at Coles and Woolworths). The pads and tampons themselves are unfortunately not recyclable at the moment, even though they contain plastic in their production.

What do all those plastic recycling symbols mean? They’re so confusing.

It definitely is confusing! The number (usually 1-7) stamped on plastics, inside a triangular series of three arrows, refers to the type of plastic resin a product’s made from, not (directly) whether that product can be recycled. But this code does make it easier for us (and reprocessors) to identify and separate used plastics for a range of new applications. If you really want to boggle your brain, have a look at this website that explains the science behind those numbers.

Can you recycle plastic straws or plastic drink lids?

Generally, plastic lids, straws and things like those takeaway soy sauce fishies are too small for current recycling technology to sort, and they represent too many kinds of plastic polymers in the mixed recycling stream. Unfortunately, most waste contractors don’t recycle them. Your best solution is to try to choose more sustainable alternatives – banish straws from your life and choose reusable containers where you can.

What are your three best recycling tips?

  1. Make more sustainable choices – get in the habit of cutting out the amount of plastic you invite into your life in the first place. The less you buy, the less you need to recycle.
  2. Make the RecycleSmart app your best friend – it helps you familiarise yourself with the rules of your local council’s collection facilities, including kerbside.
  3. If you have to buy plastic, try to buy products made with recycled plastic – help close the loop.

My neighbours have the cartons of skim milk in their plastic bin is that ok?

It’s great that you’re looking beyond your own bins 😁. The answer depends on your council. Check out the Planet Ark database or the RecycleSmart app, which can tell you whether your council accepts those plastic or foil-lined containers. If the answer is no – maybe you can pass on that tip to your neighbour!

Can you recycle baking paper?

Brownies on baking paper. Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Baking paper is a real tragedy: so much non-stick but so little recycling potential. Unfortunately, baking paper is not recyclable right now. Aluminium foil, on the other hand, is an infinitely recyclable and valuable material. Try swapping out to foil, and remember to scrunch it up and pop it in the mixed recycling bin afterwards. Why not go one step further and invest in a reusable baking mat?

What do you do with plastics that don’t have the numbered triangles on them?

Generally, you’re probably safe to put a few non-numbered hard plastics into your mixed recycling. The materials recycling facility has to sort plastics into their polymer type after it leaves your kerbside anyway. It’s at that point that they can determine where the plastic belongs or if it can’t be recycled.

What happens if someone places something that can’t be recycled in the recycling bin?

That depends on the scale of contamination. If it’s a single item that can’t be recycled, it can be easily removed at a sorting facility. If it’s large amounts of broken window glass/wine glasses, single-use coffee cups or other non-recyclable materials, they can contaminate the whole batch, resulting in diversion to landfill.

How can you recycle at home?

Familiarise yourself with your local council’s rules. Check out the Planet Ark database or the RecycleSmart app to guide you. You can also use that database to locate recycling facilities near you, to go that extra step with trickier items like chemicals, paint, light bulbs, aerosol cans and more.

What are some things that are actually not recyclable?

In your household bins, a few things you cannot recycle are: single-use coffee cups, biodegradable/degradable products, polystyrene, baking paper, plastic bottle caps and lids and tissues/paper towels and curiously... copy paper packaging (it has a plastic polymer around it).

How about those container deposit schemes where you get money for recycling cans and bottles… does this help the environment?

Every little bit counts and statistics from recent reports show that container deposit schemes are, in fact, making quite a dent in the plastic problem, particularly when it comes to overall sorting efficiency!

I heard meat trays can’t be recycled. Is this true?

The plastic meat trays can be recycled (in your commingled bin), as long as you take out the liquid-absorbing insert from the bottom and remove the soft plastic lid. The ones that can’t be recycled are the soft (usually black) polystyrene ones.

Can you please demystify lid recycling? Milk bottles, lids, tin can lids etc. – what’s good?

Plastic lids are generally too small for current recycling technology, and they represent too many plastic polymers. Tins (and tin lids) are ok to put in the recycling bin as long as they are accepted by your local council. Check out your local council’s rules on the Planet Ark database.

What’s the proper way of recycling your takeaway coffee cup?

Takeaway coffee cup CC0 Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash

There are very few ways for you to recycle a single-use coffee cup. Mostly they’re covered in a light plastic polymer and just contaminate recycling streams. Simply Cups are partnering with some outlets to collect coffee cups but the best thing you can do is invest in a reusable coffee cup!

What’s the most common thing that can’t be recycled?

Single-use takeaway coffee cups, baking paper, plastic bottle caps, tissues and paper towels! While they can be recycled by specialists, they should never go into your kerbside recycling 👎.

Can you put compost in a green bin?

At the moment, you can’t put organic (food) waste into your green bins. A very (very) small number of councils around Australia accept compostable packaging in the green bins. Call your local council and ask them if they do accept compostables/organic waste in the green bin, and if not, encourage them to consider it.

Can you explain a little about biodegradable plastics?

There’s little agreement around the extent to which ‘biodegradable’ plastics do actually biodegrade in the natural environment. Plastic packaging that’s marketed as biodegradable, degradable or compostable are really problematic.

Degradable plastics are designed to break down to an unspecified degree, over an unknown period of time in the environment. This effectively just means they deteriorate into smaller pieces of plastic polymers. Not ideal.

Biodegradable is just a generic term that shows that the material can biologically decompose but with no specific time or extent of degradation or conditions for degradation. The conditions under which compostable (cellulose-based) products degrade in a compost environment are not replicated in the general waste/landfill environment.

Also, cellulose-based packaging can’t be recycled but is, in fact, significant factor compromising recycling streams that they’re put into (like your commingled bin, where they don’t belong).

If you’re really keen to find out more about this particular topic, there are two documents we’d recommend.

The other is a report by APCO (Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation) on Compostable Packaging, which contains really useful information about the different types of packaging, their real-world implications and where to in the future.

Are there any alternatives for moisturiser and shampoo bottles? It’s a pain to wash them for recycling.

As long as the containers are empty, you don’t need to rinse them. Most personal care products will have one of those plastic identification codes (numbered stamps) and can go into your commingled bin (for mixed recycling) if your council accepts it. Find out on Planet Ark.