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Plastics are man-made materials that come from natural resources such as oil, gas and coal (fossil fuels). These valuable resources were formed from prehistoric plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. These fuels won't be replaced for millions of years to come—they are called 'non-renewable' resources.
Because the resources used to make plastic take so long to form and are so valuable, it's important to think of plastic itself as a valuable resource and recycle it wherever possible. Plastic is simply too valuable to waste.
Plastic has been the most common item collected on Clean Up Australia day for 20 years. When plastic becomes litter it can endanger the health of animals and sea life. We all need to take responsibility for managing plastic waste.
Plastics have only been widely used in the past 50 to 60 years so we don't know how long they will take to break down completely. What we do know, is that plastics are durable and versatile and that all plastics can be recycled. Many can be recycled again and again.
There are a number of degradable plastics including biodegradable plastics.
One common type of degradable plastic will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to light. However, biodegradable plastics don't just fragment—they completely break down into naturally occurring compounds such as carbon and water.
Plastic containers placed in your kerbside recycling bin are transported to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for sorting. Here they are separated from the other recyclable materials and sorted according to plastic type.
The sorted plastics are taken to a plastic recycling plant and shredded into small pieces and washed. The plastics are melted, stretched; then cut into small beads. The beads can then be melted again and moulded back into a recycled product.
Australians are getting better at recycling plastics and other waste; making more material available to be re-used as other products. The market for recycled plastic materials is also growing which means that the list of products being made from recycled plastic is expanding.
Plastics can be recycled in a wide range of products including wheelie bins, outdoor furniture, pipes, mud flaps, crates, bags or even fleecy jumpers. It's also used for building and gardening supplies in products like pipes, pallets, pots, garden edging, worm farms and compost bins. Some recycled plastics can be used to make the same item, for example soft drink bottles and milk cartons. A number of products can be made from unsorted plastics including wood replacement products such as outdoor furniture, decking and fence posts
There are about 40 different plastics used today. Each has a different chemical composition, a different strength and durability, and is suitable for different uses.
In Australia plastic products and packaging are marked with a Plastic Identification Code (a simple coding system) at the manufacturing stage to identify what type of plastic material the product is made from. The symbols (a number from 1 to 7 inside a triangle) are usually at the bottom of plastic containers and bottles.
The main purpose of the symbols is to help sorters at recycling centres to sort the collected plastics by material type. They don't always mean that the product can go into your recycling bin.
A table about the Plastics Identification Codes contains a description of the 7 symbols and examples of products made from different material types and how they can be recycled.
Check with your local council about what plastic items they will accept as this varies. Some councils collect all hard plastics for recycling while others prefer you to recycle only selected hard plastics—often plastics 1, 2 and 3.
Examples of hard plastics which can often be recycled through your local kerbside recycling service includes:
- drink bottles and milk containers
- detergent bottles
- shampoo bottles
- yoghurt containers
- ice cream containers.
Place items loosely in bin—not bundled or in plastic bags. Check with your local council about washing containers and whether or not to leave lids on, as this advice varies.
Many plastic items can be recycled in other ways, for example, through your local charity or second-hand shop. Plastic bags can be dropped off at most major supermarkets for recycling. Degradable or biodegradable bags are not recyclable.
Soft plastics and plastic packaging (see list below) are usually not recyclable through kerbside recycling. Putting these items in the recycling bin can make the sorting process more difficult or cause damage to the machinery in the recycling process.
Depending where you live you can take your plastic shopping bags and soft plastic packaging to major supermarkets for recycling.
Look for the plastic shopping bag recycling bin at the front of the store. Torn or damaged reusable 'green bags' can also be placed in these bins.
Soft plastics and plastic packaging that can be dropped off includes:
- bread, pasta and rice bags
- cereal box liners
- biscuit packets and trays
- frozen food bags
- ice cream wrappers
- squeeze pouches
- plastic sachets
- chocolate and snack bar wrappers
- silver-lined chip and cracker packets
- confectionery bags
- fresh produce bags
- netting citrus bags
- polypropylene shopping bags
- plastic film from grocery items such as nappies and toilet paper
- Australia Post-style satchels
- newspaper wrap
- pet food bags
- bubble wrap and large sheets of plastic that furniture comes wrapped in (cut into pieces the size of an A3 sheet of paper first).
Check with your local council if they accept items made from polystyrene—for example, meat trays, packaging and foam cups.
Hot beverage pods, capsules and discs are not recyclable through kerbside recycling. Putting these items in the recycling bin can make the sorting process more difficult and may contaminate the recycling stream.
However, the good news is that there are now ways to recycle pods, capsules and discs to recover the materials and re-use the resources.
Several brands have a post-back program through TerraCycle. You can request a pre-paid shipping label from TerraCycle via email and drop the bagged items off at an Australia Post Office. TerraCycle also has drop-off location details for two manufacturer's products:
You can also buy TerraCycle Coffee Capsules Zero Waste Box and fill it with any make of hot beverage pod, capsule or disc and then send it back for recycling.
The pods, capsules and discs are mechanically and/or manually separated into metals, organics and plastics. Metals are melted so they can be recycled. The organics (such as the coffee grounds) are composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletisation to be molded into new recycled plastic products.
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