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Have you ever considered where your waste goes? Like…really goes?

Sure we all know it heads off in a truck (or perhaps you drive it) to landfill, but have you ever followed up as to what happens next?

As part of the National Recycling Week celebrations Sunshine Coast Council offered local residents a free ‘Recycling Eduction Morning’ that showed them EXACTLY how their waste is processed in air-conditioned stink free comfort (bonus)!

The facilitator and educator for the morning, Sandy, began our educational journey with a small amount of bribery as we were offered a collection of freebies all made from recycled material. Having met Sandie at the recycling education facility once before (and been gifted some recycled paper pencils in the process), I knew we were in for a fun filled recycling journey.

Around three years have passed since I visited the ‘Waste to Resource’ education centre as part of my studies into ’empowering individuals for sustainability’ and learnt about waste and recycling education strategies and tools. Much has changed with the way the recycling plant operates since my last visit. First and foremost my beliefs about what can and can’t go into the recycling bin were shattered! Having done a little research online in the last week or two I will admit my findings were off. Recent technological advancements and state wide networks have made it possible for residents in my area to recycle ALL types of plastic (numbers 1-7) in kerbside recycling. Also on my last visit I had learnt that much of the picking and sorting was conducted by a production line of people who manned they conveyor belt and picked for specific items. Since then the plant has installed a series of technological  improvements.

Even before my waste and recycling is picked up, technological advances have come into play. The three hundred thousand dollar garbage truck I got to pretend to drive (I am such a big kid) is decked out with more cameras than the ‘Big Brother’ household and allows the driver not only to view what waste is entering the truck, but also records data on everything from numbers of bins out per neighbourhood (apparently sneaky sorts buy extra garbage bins and put them out in hope that the drivers won’t notice), to providing video footage to police to solve disputes about accidents. Given that I live down the end of a dead end street on a slope I have always marvelled at the way the garbage collection truck driver was able to precisely back down the street and collect the waste with the driving prowess of  ‘The Stig’ from Top Gear. Now they have cameras for everything the precision is improved ten fold.

Garbage trucks are able to pick up larger loads than recycling trucks as landfill can, and will, be compacted. Recycling on the other hand need to be transported with care and recyclables are precious resources that can live life many times over. If compacted too tightly into the truck some recyclables can loose their value. It was fascinating to learn that only specific types of glass can be recycled due to its melting points. The stuff used for your food and beverage supermarket items has a lower melting point than drinking glasses. If your broken drinking glass ends up in the recycling bin with your beer bottles it can contaminate the load. Just twenty five grams of ‘drinking glass’ glass in a tonne of recyclable glass can see the entire load sent to landfill instead of being make into new products. Obviously this will be different depending on where you live in the world but it highlights the importance of really getting to know what can and can’t go into your recycling bin.

Once the trucks are full they head to the resource recovery facility.

Landfill trucks go to the landfill and dump their load. Landfill is the least preferred method for waste management because it is a finite way to manage waste, it costs lots of money (like millions!) and is seriously bad for the environment. They have developed ways to make landfill have less impact on the surrounding landscape but from the photos above you can get the idea of the detrimental impact that still occurs. That big hole is a scar on our beautiful countryside, you can see the surrounding bushland that would of once covered the whole site. Once the landfill facility has reached it peak carrying capacity the waste management seal the site with a layer of clay to stop water permeating the landfill and then add a layer of topsoil and turf. Sure, rolling hills look pretty, but they are of very little use to Australian wildlife and a once diverse bush landscape is reduced to a monoculture crop of grass. So avoiding or abolishing the need for landfill would be a dream come true.

Here are a few facts about landfill.

In landfill it will take clothing more than one year to decompose (if it is natural fibres, if not it gets clumped with the plastics), plastics take up to six hundred years to decompose (and never truly ‘go away’), and aluminium cans can take from two hundred to six hundred years to decompose. Many of these items clogging up landfill can be recycled! Unfortunately laziness, bad recycling practices, and lack of awareness  sees the average 706g kg collected annually from waste bins across the Sunshine Coast comprising of 122kg of recyclable material, 176 kg of garden waste and 179kg of food waste. Of the 331kg of recycling collected per household annually, up to 18kg is actually waste, not recyclables (not a bad effort Coast residents we nearly have it right).

What does this mean for the recycling facility staff?

Well if you recycle stuff that isn’t supposed to be recycled you can cause havoc at the recycling facility. The Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is designed to handle regular and specific waste, as in the stuff that is mentioned on your bin lid. So if you cram a car engine or a broken toaster (true stories) into your recycling bin not only can you shut the system down for hours at a time, there is a chance you could cause injuries to the workers as items entangled in rotating sieves can shoot out like missiles! Apparently shredded paper creates a ‘snow like’ effect if it is processed through the sorters. Sound pretty but not a particularly useful for the plant managers or the environment.

Although a lot of the processes in the MRF are automated there are still staff members who sort conveyer belts. There is one specific team member dedicated to picking plastic bags (which aren’t kerb side recyclable on the coast only in recycling bins at the supermarket) off the paper and plastic sorter as they are lightweight and get processed through as paper. The plastic sorter has to climb off their platform every two hours to clean away mountains of plastic bags that accumulate under them, and have the bags taken to landfill. The worst plastic and recycling offenders ‘bag’ their recycling. If your recycling is in a plastic bag it goes straight to landfill. End of story. It doesn’t matter how well you washed it, even if you sorted it neatly, staff are not legally allowed to open plastic bags in case there are dangers inside. Your efforts are wasted.

Once each material is sorted and bailed it heads off to facilities in within the state for further processing and eventually sales to companies that repurpose your waste into new items. When you take into account how far your products travelled even before you used them, the fact that they may still head as far as China after your done is quite a baffling thought. All those carbon miles just for you to have a quick ‘iced coffee’ (or in my case coconut water) fix on the way to work seems hardly worth the short term satisfaction convenience can bring. When you holiday you reminisce about the beautiful scenery you see along the way, not that iced coffee you drank in the car park after refuelling your car. Why comprise the beauty of the world for unexciting quick fixes!

With this in mind the education facility focuses on making consumers aware of good and bad packaging choices. There are loads of fun games and educational displays in the facility but my favourite is the shopping activity. It is set up with a handheld scanner so kids (and adults) can scan items to see if they are a good or bad packaging choice. If they choose the item with more packaging a big red cross lights up and buzzers sound. If only we had these in the supermarket! Alongside the ‘rethink’ strategy they encourage ‘reuse’ of items, showing ways to use jars for storage etc. The roof of the room is a up cycling joy with every time of item imaginable glued there and spray painted silver. I would personally love to retrieve the vintage bike and give it a makeover.

Overall I had a wonderful day learning the finer details about my personal waste stream and I highly recommend the experience to everyone. In fact alongside first aid, completing a recycling and waste management course should be compulsory for all. If it was then the poor staff members at the MRF would be risking life and limb sorting through stinky remnants of our dinners past (yes, please rinse your recycling in your old dishwater for these guys sake).

As far as my personal waste, the last few days have been quite good. Thursday night I ate out with my girlfriend before heading to the graphic design exhibition. I collected my beer bottle and sauce container even though I felt like a crazy woman putting my trash in my handbag. Friday was actually waste free. Woo Hoo! Today resulted in a few basics (chocolate is a basic isn’t it?). I now feel confident that at the end of my challenge I will know exactly how to dispose of my recycling. For example I learnt that aluminium foil like the chocolate wrapper above can be recycled at our plant if it is crumbled into a big ball (collect some for a while if you don’t have enough). If it is floating around in lightweight sheets the automated sorter thinks its paper or cardboard and it will float away with those and end up being trashed. If it is scrunched up in a ball it will fall through the sorter with the other solids and end up in the correct bale.

There you have it. Recycling 101 for the Sunshine Coast. For those of you in other areas a quick google should allow you to find out who is in charge of your recycling. Be nosey. Call any customer service numbers you can and ask them your hairy recycling questions because as they say, you never know if you don’t ask!

Sorry for my absence for anyone who has been fooling the daily prompts. Consider it a mini holiday! Next week I will be looking at composting, organics, gardening waste and up cycling. Not 100% sure where I will start yet but stay tuned for info. Tomorrow we will be reflecting on the half way point of the challenge. More questions and assessment will be bound to happen. Have a pen and paper or your favourite word processing program on hand.