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Plastic pandemic: your guide to recycling

Over the last few years as global focus has shifted to health, the environment has taken a hit. Disposable masks, rapid tests, bans on reusable cups for takeaway coffee, greater reliance on online shopping and an increased reliance on cleaning products have changed our habits. When it comes to the environment, disposing of all this extra stuff and its packaging comes at a significant cost.

The pandemic has generated more than 8 million tonnes of extra plastic waste globally, mostly from medical waste like masks and online shopping packaging. Australians are usually great household recyclers, but it’s been difficult to maintain our high standards.

‘We are generating more materials that should probably go into recycling as a result of changing purchasing habits,’ says Dr Trevor Thornton, a senior lecturer at Deakin’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment. ‘But it can be difficult to understand what can be recycled.’

Now that we’re through the height of the pandemic, it’s an ideal time to think about returning to a more eco-sensitive lifestyle. These practical tips on how to be sustainable will help you get back into recycling – and perhaps even change the way you shop.

What can you recycle? Getting to grips with what goes in the recycle bin

Long before we wore masks and bought groceries online, recycling was a complicated caper. It isn’t as simple as chucking everything that looks like paper and plastic into your recycling bin. ‘There’s a term I often use called “wish-cycling” – a hope that if you put something into the recycling bin, it might get recycled,’ Dr Thornton says.

Local councils have rules about what goes in the recycle bin depending on their facilities – this is a great place to start if your recycling habits are a little rusty. If you throw in something that can’t be recycled, it can contaminate the whole batch and it will all be diverted to landfill.

Dr Thornton says disposable coffee cups are classic example. ‘Can coffee cups be put in the recycling bin at home? The simple answer is no. You can’t recycle them because they generally contain a waterproof plastic layer,’ he explains.

Figuring out what plastics can be recycled is another area of confusion. ‘Because soft plastics get recycled at the supermarket, people think that you can put them in your recycling bin at home – but you can’t,’ Dr Thornton says. ‘That’s a really big issue because it contaminates paper and cardboard streams.’

The good news is that plastic bags – those that aren’t banned – plastic wrapping and most household plastics can be recycled by supermarkets. Simply put them in designated bins at the supermarket and ‘they’ll be used to make garden furniture, rail sleepers, pipes and whole range of different products,’ Dr Thornton says.

He says the same goes for coffee cups. ‘A number of cafes have bins that you can put your disposable coffee cup in, and they get collected separately and processed.’

What’s more, you can also recycle clothes and other textiles, which Dr Thornton says are often mistakenly put into household recycling bins. ‘They won’t make it from your recycling bin to the op shops,’ he says. Instead, take textiles to retailers like H&M and Zara.

How can we reduce what goes in the bin?

What about pandemic-related purchases like masks and packaging from extra cleaning products and rapid tests – can they be recycled, too? Dr Thornton recommends, where possible, buying products that contain less packaging and where the packaging can be recycled. ‘Have a look at the packaging. Is it made of recycled material? Can it be made out of recycled material?’

For some products that are difficult to recycle, he recommends reducing or changing your consumption patterns. Instead of hardcore disinfectant, which generates plastic waste, you might switch to hot water and a bit of elbow grease.

‘One of my pet hates is when products are labelled “hospital-grade disinfectant”,’ Dr Thornton says. ‘What does that mean? In fact, a lot of hospitals just use hot water to wipe down benches – it’s often better than disinfectant.’

Disposable masks can’t be recycled, but he says you can wear them for several short periods. ‘If you go down the shops and you’ve only worn it for 10 minutes, you don’t need to throw it away and get another one.’

How can you be more sustainable?

Indeed, buying and using less stuff reduces the need for recycling in the first place. ‘The preferred approach to waste management is avoidance,’ Dr Thornton says.

Owning fewer clothes of better quality is one of the simplest ways to have a more sustainable wardrobe. ‘Ask yourself: do you have the funds to buy something which is probably going to last you two years, but might be a bit more expensive, as opposed to one year?’ Dr Thornton says.

When you make any kind of product purchase, he recommends factoring in the full lifecycle, from how it’s produced to whether it can be recycled – and holding retailers to account.

‘Prior to buying something, ask the store or company: does this come from sustainable materials? What are you doing to purchase recycled materials to go in your products? What do you do to try and reduce waste? Do we need that packaging? Can this product be recycled?

‘The power is always with the consumer.’

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Dr Trevor Thornton
Dr Trevor Thornton

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Science,

Engineering & Built Environment,

Deakin University

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