Recycling Plastic Containers and Lids, why is Australia so far behind the rest of the World?

The different Container Recycling schemes running across Australia has shown once again that not having a single federal entity responsible creates a bureaucratic mess with massive duplication in costs for all involved and a minefield with different rules for each state creating confusion about what can and cannot be recycled.

Not a single state has chosen the Reverse Vending Machine model at the point of sale like successful implementations in places like Germany and instead the requirement is for millions of trips to be made to dedicated recycling sites which does nothing but harm the environment.

The next issue is that most states don’t recycle the plastic lids and require you to remove them before you return them and throw them into bins that are destined for landfill. This is contrary to the practices of other countries that have invested in recycling facilities and shows that once again our recycling in Australia in a joke. Organisations like Envirobank further confuse the issue with their ideas on how container lids should be handled and recommend that you put them into your recycle bin or use them for other purposes!

Did you know that the plastic in the lids are different to the plastic in bottles? This means they need to be recycled differently. Not only that, but if recycling batches are contaminated with lids it can mean the whole lot might get sent into landfill (Noooo!).

When lids enter a recycling facility’s sorting process, they often get lost along the way because of their small size and weight, and are then sent on to landfills. What a waste – right!

When lids are included in the recycling at our drop points it can wreak havoc on our machinery – causing technical issues, risking personal injury, and delaying your Crunch Credits being issued! So always make sure to remove the lids before dropping them in.

Loose lids on their own can be too small to be picked up by depot sorting machines which means they often get sorted out and end up in landfill.

Place your loose lids into a larger plastic bottle, like a milk bottle, before adding them to your yellow council bin for recycling so they are contained and make their way through the recycling machines.

Look for alternative ways to reuse them. For example, ask if your local schools and pre-schools would like to take some for their craft-hour.

23rd of June 2019 | Envirobank

The truth is that the lids don’t need to be removed as they can be recycled at the same time as the bottles and automatically separated during the washing process. If the lid is removed before this occurs it will likely end up in landfill. Some Australian States and organisations will tell you to remove the lid and put it into a recycling bin but this will see it likely end up in landfill due to it’s size.

In fact by being told that we can recycle without the lids this has created an issue with bottle lids now being in the top 5 items being found in beach cleaning and litter monitoring around the world. The top 5 in order of number are

  1. Fishing Gear
  2. Plastic Bags and Utensils
  3. Balloons
  4. Cigarette Butts
  5. Bottle Caps

In the summer of 2016, The North Sea Foundation and more than 2,000 volunteers picked up as many bottle caps as they could find along the entire Dutch North Sea coast. These bottle caps were analysed one by one. The survey shows the quantity, type and origins of the bottle caps that pollute the North Sea and its beaches.

The biggest issue in Australia is that we generally just send our recycling to other countries for them to deal with and each council area differs in their approach, some even send recycling to landfill directly as we have seen many times recently.

The following is from The Association of Plastic Recyclers who have an excellent FAQ that illustrates how far behind we are in Australia.

Caps On – Frequently Asked Questions

I’ve always heard that plastic recyclers needed caps to be taken off? Why make the change?
Two key reasons: First, when recycling gets easier, participation goes up. APR is dedicated to boosting participation in recycling programs. Second, the cap material is recyclable. Why dispose something that could be recycled? In the past the plastics recycling industry was not able to effectively recycle bottles with caps on so the message to remove the cap was created. Recycling collection and processing technology has improved, demand for the recyclable material has increased allowing the current caps on recycling message and process.

Are recycled caps marketable?
Yes. Generally, caps are made out of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) – both of these have high demand from applications in both domestic and export markets.

Caps are usually made of a different type of plastic than bottles. Do they have to be recycled separately?
No. Although closures may be made of a different material than the bottle, bottles are ground into flake before being vigorously washed in the recycling process. The washed cap material is then separated from the bottle material during a water bath float/sink process. PET will sink, PP and HDPE will float. Both materials are then recycled into new items.

Should bottles and containers be flattened before replacing the cap?
APR’s primary message is EMPTY AND REPLACE CAP. According to a recent MRF Material Flow Study, flattening bottles can lead to improper sortation, and they may end up in the paper stream. Retaining a 3D form can help containers be successfully sorted.

Can bales of bottles with caps on be marketed at the same rate as bales without caps?
Yes. APR’s model bale specifications do not downgrade for the inclusion of caps. APR member companies regularly buy and recycle bales of caps-on bottles and containers.

Can I get a good bale compaction rate with caps on bottles?
Yes. Good bale density is important – too light and it’s hard to hit load requirements. Too tight and the material is over compacted, and recyclers cannot break them apart very well. While the answer varies by the type of baler, generally speaking 100-120psi of pressure should allow most balers to compress plastic bottles with caps on. Large-scale 2 ram systems, most commonly used in MRFs, should have no trouble as they often range in the 150-300+ psi range. A single ram, closed door baler usually operates at 70-120 psi. While larger balers of this format should be fine, those running at the low end of that range will generally have trouble securing a good bale. A single ram extrusion auto tie also needs to operate more at 100-120psi range but there’s some finesse needed. By running a load of cardboard before the bottles, the operator then gains something hard to push against and should be able to reach compaction.

Must the bottles go through a perforator machine before baling in order to get a good compaction rate?
Generally, no. Most current Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) do not operate a perforation machine to puncture the bottles before baling. Heavy duty horizontal balers take care of the job using plenty of pressure.

Will the caps shoot off during baling?
APR strongly suggests all baler safety equipment such as guards be left untampered, unmodified, and unchanged to prevent incidents and accidents. Rupturing bottles in a baler can create projectiles and baler manufacturers have included the guards for worker protection.

Are there things I can do to design my products to make them more recyclable?
Yes. The APR Design® Guide for Plastics Recyclability is the most comprehensive design resource outlining the plastics recycling industry’s recommendations in the marketplace today with the ultimate goal of all plastic packaging to be compatible with the plastics recycling infrastructure. Size and shape are critical parameters in MRF sorting, and this must be considered in designing packages for recycling. Items smaller than three inches in all dimensions are non-recyclable per APR. Most caps are smaller than three inches. If they are not replaced on bottles, they will not be recycled, and end up in the landfill.

Are metal caps really a problem?
Yes. Steel caps may damage machinery and aluminum caps may slow down production. They may cause contamination issues in the float/sink process, as they sink with PET material. Metal caps may also cause plastic bottles and containers to be separated from the plastics stream in the eddy current (magnetic) step of the sortation process at the MRF.

My MRF says that they do not accept caps on plastic containers. What should I do?
Please let them know that APR supports caps and closures to remain on containers before being placed in a recycling cart or bin. We understand that for some MRF’s accepting caps on is readily done and for some it is a challenge. Our message is that the market accepts bales for which the caps and closures are left on the bottles, but the equipment and policies at the local level may take time to adapt. Please feel free to share this information or direct your MRF officials to: www.plasticsrecycling.org.

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