If you’ve ever paused at the bins, puzzled as to whether your chocolate wrapper or empty coffee cup can be recycled, sorting through your rubbish is about to get less confusing.
A new recycling logo – the Australasian Recycling Label – launched this week, aimed at making it easier for consumers to distinguish between what parts of packaging can be recycled and what needs to go to landfill.
More than 50 Australian businesses have committed to using the label including Nestlé, Officeworks, Unilever and Woolworths.
But as it stands, there are dozens of various packaging logos which is why many Australian consumers have a hard time recognising which products are safe to recycle.
There are also logos with numbers encased in recycling-like symbols which do not necessarily mean a product can be recycled. Instead, this refers to the type of plastic.
Commonly confusing items which are sometimes recycled by accident include waxed cardboard, light bulbs, glass homewares, plastic-lined coffee cups, foil wrappers and Pringles tubes with aluminium lining.
Waste management and recycling expert Dr Trevor Thornton said part of the problem is that people don’t know the materials from which products are made.
“Some might assume a chocolate wrapper is like aluminium foil, which can be recycled, but it can’t,” he said.
“Coffee cups are a classic example because they look like cardboard but most of them have a plastic lining.”
Dr Thornton said some common misconceptions about recycling include the need to rinse containers and unfold cardboard.
“If you’ve eaten a tub of yogurt and there are traces of it at the base of the container, there is no need to rinse it. Same goes for envelopes with plastic windows or tissue boxes with a plastic opening,” he said.
“It’s not necessary to unfold cardboard packaging flat because it will all be compacted during the sorting process.
“It also depends on the size of an item. Something might be made from recycled plastic but if it just fits in the bin, it can’t fit in the sorting process.”
What the new recycling label looks like
The Australasian Recycling Label clearly defines what is recyclable and not recyclable, as well as “conditionally recyclable” guidelines in cases where only some parts of the packaging are recyclable.
Food consumption and waste expert Jenni Downes said the new standardised label will tell consumers how to deal with each individual component in the packaging, such as boxes, lids and outer wrappings.
“More and more companies are starting to introduce the label on products and over the next two years we should see a major increase in the use of the label,” she said.
“Where a product doesn’t have the label, consumers should begin by considering what material the item is made out of.
“If it has more than one material, it generally can’t be recycled without separating the materials apart, which is often difficult. The best rule is, ‘if in doubt, leave it out’.”
Dr Thornton said he believes the Australasian Recycling Label will provide much-needed clarity and “reduce contamination” in recycling streams.
“If people are more aware of what products can and can’t be recycled, it may affect buying behaviour,” he said.
“But people should realise that this may come at a cost. If packaging changes for products they may become more expensive.”
Australian environment minister on Wednesday announced a plan for 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted and 30 per cent of packaging to be made of recyclables, working towards a 100 per cent target set for 2025.
It came days after a World Bank report found that global waste will grow by as much as 70 per cent by 2050 unless urgent action is taken and months after China’s decision to ban imported waste.
Australia produces about 64 million tonnes of waste every year and recycles 35 million tonnes, four million tonnes of which is exported (minus the 1.3 million tonnes previously exported to China.)