Jess in her trendy attire, standing in front of recycling that has been sorted and is ready to be shipped abroad for processing

I’m a self-confessed waste nerd. There I said it.
If I do end up with something to recycle when I’m out and about, I’ll carry it around for hours until I find an appropriate bin to dispose of it in, so a trip to a landfill and recycling site got me super excited. That is until the sheer scale of both operations hit me at full force on my recent trip.

The sites themselves were slick and well managed, the landfill site hardly smelled at all and everything worked like a well-oiled machine, however what I couldn’t get over was how wasteful even the recycling centre seemed. I could bang on for a lifetime about the range of emotions I experienced and the motivation it gave me to reduce my consumption habits, but I thought it’d be more constructive to summarise it into 5 handy observations because who doesn’t love a list?!


1. We humans are pretty darn lazy

Located in Coolaroo, Victoria, SKM Recycling is the largest recycling site in the southern hemisphere. “We’re essentially a sorting centre,” our friendly guide explained. They don’t recycle or repurpose materials but simply sort them into relevant categories, of which there are plastics (7 types), glass (3 types), cardboard, paper, steel and aluminium.

At this one location alone they process between 80-100 tonnes of waste. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. It’s pretty mind-blowing to think how we humans can create so much on a daily basis.

Walking through the middle of the site amongst conveyor belts and loud rumbling machinery there were plastic bags getting caught up in the machines everywhere I looked. It’s been drummed into us for years that plastic bags cannot go into the recycling bin (they should be dropped here along with all other soft plastics) but it seems the message hasn’t sunk in. This results in workers having to constantly stop and declog the sorting machines, not just of plastic bags but also of landfill items. And the stench was awful. I felt for the workers having to stop the proceedings all the time, because of our sheer laziness.

Recycling being sorted

We all felt overwhelmed, sad and disgusted as we watched truck after truck empty their loads slowly, like “they were giving birth” (said the girl next to me) to the largest pile of waste we had ever witnessed.

Things we use for a few moments get discarded without a thought; bottles of soft drink, cans, ice cream containers, electronics, plastic chairs, shoe boxes, polystyrene bins (which for the record, cannot be recycled).

It was so awful to see the effects of all the things we hardly spend a moment thinking about, now sitting in an enormous heap in front of me.

And then to find out that most of it is shipped to developing countries for processing nearly tipped me over the edge.


2. Most of our recycling is sent offshore and can only ever be ‘downcycled’

Once waste is sorted on Australian soil, the majority of it is shipped overseas to Indonesia and China, where it is made back into items that we buy and get shipped back to Australia again.

The thought of the environmental impact of transportation alone is alarming, but then you just have to do a quick Google search on the conditions of workers who make up the scrap plastic industry and it’s enough to make you start running for your closest packaging-free store.

Workers, often whole families including children, are relentlessly exposed to processing chemicals and fumes without the proper provision of ventilation or safety equipment. Check out the fabulous documentary Bag It for more on that and other great and often humorous tips.

The other part of the whole recycling process that I hadn’t considered was that you can’t melt a plastic bottle and turn it into a plastic bottle again, because the quality is compromised at each use. They are often turned into items of lesser quality, until they get to a point where they can no longer be recycled and enter the landfill waste stream. This is known as downcycling. It’s all so ludicrous!

The advent of recycling and how well it has been adopted into our daily lives is a real success story, but we look to it as an end game rather than a last resort.

The real success will be the moment we stop creating the volume of waste or needing to recycle altogether.


3. Nobody sorts the trash from the recycling at a landfill site, it all goes in

There are these large dug-out holes at the landfill site called ‘cells’, which get filled up with all the things we deem waste. The ‘away’ part of ‘throw-away’ you could say.

Rubbish trucks all over the city come here to dump their loads, and it looked like a pretty straightforward operation. The trucks come in, drive to the top of the mound (where the cell has filled with rubbish already), dump, and wash off their tyres from a tank of recycled water and head on their way out. Then, simultaneously, there are bulldozers picking up piles of soil (taken from old construction sites, or wherever they can source it) and dumping that on top. The reality that our rubbish simply got buried hit home.

Rubbish being dumped in cells, ready to be buried

Did I really think there was more to landfill than that? Did nobody sort through it to make sure there was nothing in there that shouldn’t be? Any recyclables that lost their way? Apparently not, said our guide. No checking or sorting here, just dump and cover. I felt a bit sick and sad at the same time.


4. If we want to combat this problem it has to start at home

Tackling the problem of waste starts in the home and there are lots of things we can do ourselves to reduce our volume of waste and recycling, they include:

  • Starting a compost bin (around 40% of our waste is comprised of food scraps, which in the oxygen starved environment of landfill creates methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2)
  • Finding a bulk food store and taking your own bags and containers
  • Shopping at farmers’ markets or places where you can buy produce packaging-free
  • Saying no to plastic bags at all costs
  • Carrying a reusable coffee cup, water bottle and cutlery.

 

After seeing the ‘other side’ of where our waste goes, it has made me even more passionate about educating people about living waste-free. It;s empowering to know that change can start with us.


5. We need to learn from the Swedes and do more with our trash

Our guide at the landfill site told us how they had recently begun converting the methane gas produced underground (most of which was our food waste, which is a crime in itself) into biogas electricity, powering 4,000 Melbourne homes on the grid. This is a positive step, but we could be doing more.

In Sweden, more than 99% of household waste is recycled. Roughly half of this is then used to heat 950,000 homes, and 260,000 with electricity. So yes there’s a lot more we could be doing!

Sweden and other European countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands are leading the way in waste management by finding useful ways to re-purpose waste and reduce the impact on the environment.

The Swedes are so conscious of what they put in the bin, with recycling facilities in close vicinity to where people live and a selection of bins for people to sort their waste into themselves. It now means that they don’t actually produce enough rubbish to fuel the ovens that generate heat. Instead they import waste from overseas (namely the UK and Norway), which begs the question, surely that transportation isn’t good for the environment?

I took to Google and according to this article, when you look at the environmental impact of landfill versus shipping waste overseas, landfill is far worse (for every tonne of imported waste, 1,100 pounds of C02 equivalent is saved). Because of electric filters used in the incineration process in Sweden, the smoke is also almost entirely nontoxic carbon dioxide and water, meaning less impact on the environment too. After reducing our volume of rubbish, incineration seems to be the answer in regards to being green and resourceful and our European counterparts are championing this most efficiently.

(For more information on the process and all the facts you can read the full article here.)

“So to my fellow waste-free warriors, continue to educate your friends and spread the word.
Because when we’re talking about waste, there is no ‘away’.”