By John Pedler
Published: Sunday, September 3, 2023
South Australia has the highest percentage of recycling among the states and territories, according to the 2022 National Waste Report.
Over the years, SA has led the way in recycling. This began way back in the late 1800s with the re-use of local beverage manufacturers’ beer and soft drink bottles.
In 1977, our state became the first to introduce a bottle and can refund scheme. It was more than 30 years before the Northern Territory became the next state or territory to adopt a similar program.
In the late 1980s, yellow-lidded bins started to appear on footpaths around the country. These sturdy receptacles have an appetite for a range of recyclable material, in a process known as commingled recycling.
So, what can go in a yellow bin and where does it end up?
What goes in?
Which Bin is the go-to website when it comes to bin deposits. Most people know the yellow bin is for paper, cardboard, metal cans and plastic milk bottles, but it also takes empty aerosol cans, plastic buckets, aluminium foil and emptied and dried paint tins. For the full rundown of a yellow bin’s diet, check Which Bin’s, Recycling from A – Z webpage.
Where does it go?
From the footpath, the contents of the yellow bin make their way to one of SA’s Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF).
Through a mix of manual and machine sorting, MRF operators do their best to remove as many contaminants as possible. These include batteries, nappies, clothing, crockery, food scraps, and the scourge of recyclers, soft plastics like shopping bags and bubble wrap. Not only do these plastics clog machines, they can also contaminate other material like paper and cardboard during the sorting, making recycling more difficult.
Once the MRF has separated material, it’s sent to various reprocessing centres around the state and beyond.
High-quality PETE plastic, like clear fruit juice containers, is rebirthed as plastic bottles and thread for clothing. HDPE plastic, found in milk and detergent bottles, is sent to Australian reprocessing centres to make more milk bottles, as well as products like irrigation pipe and outdoor furniture. Some lower-quality hard plastics can also be recycled.
Glass bottles are separated by colour and recycled locally. Metal containers and aluminium cans are also recycled in Adelaide.
Other glass products, such as mirrors, light bulbs and drinking glasses aren’t suitable for the yellow bin. When these types of glass are smashed, tiny shards can contaminate other recyclables.
Paper, which makes up more than half of SA’s yellow bin contents, is sent to paper mills interstate, where it’s made into products like carboard packaging.
A limited amount of soft plastic was being recycled through the REDcycle program, which saw shoppers drop off their used bags and wrapping at participating supermarkets. The program collapsed in late 2022, leaving huge stockpiles of plastic awaiting the next step.
Repurposing these materials is a complex process, and very few Australian companies operate in this field.
Hopefully the problem will be reduced by successful council programs, and the gradual phasing out of these products across the country.
It’s been suggested that a six-bin system would make processing easier by further separating recyclables, and help reduce the problem of broken glass contaminating other items.
Under this approach, paper, glass, organics, plastic, metal and miscellaneous household waste would each have their own dedicated bins. Victoria is currently rolling out a four-bin system, separating glass from the rest of the pack.
Although some materials aren’t suitable for the yellow bin, there are recycling services in Adelaide that deal with oil, polystyrene, batteries (both car and fiddly), electronics and other waste.
Although recycling via MRFs plays an important role in a sustainable society, the main goal is to limit the volume of waste that needs to be dealt with. This will reduce the amount of energy used in transporting and processing recyclables, and further reduce our carbon footprint.
At a household level, this means choosing products with little or no packaging, avoiding disposable and single-use goods, and reusing or repairing items rather than throwing them away.