Kerbside Recycling – Where to from here?

By Mike Ritchie

Nationally waste to landfill is growing at between 4.5 and 7% per annum. We need to double our recycling rates over the next 9 years to still be sending 22 million tonnes (MT) per year to landfill in 2020. If we don't accelerate recycling we will be landfilling closer to 40 MT by 2020.

 On recent estimates the recycling rate for commercial waste will need to treble from 8 MT to more than 23 MT, while domestic putrescible diversion will need to grow from <1 MT to something of the order of 9 MT by 2020.

 But what of kerbside recycling?

 Is there any room for innovation in the kerbside recycling space? We have been doing it well for 15 years and more than 90% of Australian households now have access to kerbside recycling schemes and we have one of the highest per capita domestic recycling rates in the world.

 Australia currently recycles about 8 MT per year through kerbside recycling. But it may surprise you to know that we landfill an estimated 2-3 MT of recyclables from our households. That is recyclable plastic, steel, aluminium, glass and newsprint. That is on average the residual garbage bin has about 23% of recyclables in it (by weight) according to NSW figures. If you do the maths, 23% by weight of the garbage bin is approximately 33% by weight of recyclables which are being lost to the garbage bin. (The percentage is higher because of the different specific gravities).

There are only two possible reasons for this. Firstly, there is a level of ignorance and ambivalence to recycling amongst the population and secondly, capacity constraints in the recycling bins. I think the second cause is both more interesting and more immediately remedied. A recent review of three councils in Sydney showed that as many as 40% of households were filling their recycling bins to capacity each fortnight, and thus at risk of “leaking” recyclable material into the general rubbish bin.

 In terms of what can be done about it, there are four options, as follows:

1. Do nothing and accept the loss (the current default position);

2. Provide an extra bin and service it at the same time as the first;

3. Service recycling bins weekly rather than fortnightly; and

4. Provide a bigger recycling bin.

MRA has modelled these options from a cost, greenhouse gas and recovery perspective. The problem with the 'Option 1' is we are losing a lot of recoverable materials with high embodied energy and the council is paying to landfill them (at a higher cost than it is paying to recycle them).

The biggest problem with 'Option 2' is the costs of servicing the extra bin. Collectors generally charge for an additional lift as if it was a new household (i.e. the same price). I have not yet found a Council that has a lower service fee for the lift of the second bin. I think the reason is that such double services are not yet common and are usually added after the collection contract is let. So there are few economies of scale for the collectors. It is possible collectors would offer a lower cost for the second lift if councils quantified the number of double lifts at the time of tender.

'Option 3' results in a virtual doubling of the real collection costs of the service since the truck is now running up and down every street on a weekly basis, whether required by the residents or not.

Finally, 'Option 4'is to increase the size of the recycling bin from say a 240 to a 360 litre bin. The cost of the new bin is a one-off $100 (approximately). The costs of collection are the same. It is a single lift charged at the same lift rate.

A number of councils have ventured into larger recycling bins and the feedback has been good, with most councils observing growth in recovery of recyclables of 15-30% with no additional costs of collection (apart from the bin itself).

There is an argument to be made that councils should give away the larger bin to households that need it. The savings in landfill gate fees (in Sydney $180/t and around $70-140/t in other capital cities) compared to MRF separation $0-40/t) soon pays for the capital cost of the bin (assuming collection costs are the same).

So instead of losing 33% of our recyclables to landfill via the garbage bin, there are real and cost effective options for councils. First and foremost is to offer larger recycling bins to those households who need them.