Bin spying: why council inspectors are peeking at your recycling
By Tom Cowie
December 8, 2019

Rifling through someone’s bins at dawn might have once been the domain of private detectives hunting for incriminating details.

Now, it’s more likely to be a council worker checking for “contamination”, as local governments conduct bin inspections across Melbourne to see if people are recycling correctly.

The recycling crisis has highlighted the confusion for households, with items that should be thrown in the garbage, such as soft plastics, consigning many tonnes of recyclables to landfill.

In recent months, residents in Moreland have been subjected to audits of their recycling and organic waste bins before they are picked up by the council’s trucks.

Tags are placed on the bin handle showing whether they have passed or failed the test.

Those who do the wrong thing are told what was incorrectly recycled, while bins with high levels of contamination are not collected.

Food scraps, nappies, polystyrene, soft plastics, electronics and clothing are common waste items mistakenly put into recycling.

In October, 801 recycling bins were randomly inspected across Moreland, with 51.7 per cent containing some kind of contamination. Some 77 bins were rejected.

The results were slightly better in September, when 44.5 per cent of bins were contaminated. The main culprits were soft plastics, paper towel/tissues and bagged recycling.

But not everyone thinks it’s a worthwhile exercise.

Despite getting a “well done” tag for recycling correctly, Glenroy resident Simon De Leonardis said too much onus was being put on households, rather than industry and government.

“As far as I’m concerned, council is wasting their time with this,” he said.

“Even a person who has gone through uni and has a couple of degrees can find it hard to know what to recycle. The council often can’t tell you themselves.”

He said the focus should be on reducing the amount of packaging that comes with almost everything we buy.
Doing the right thing earns a ‘well done’.

Doing the right thing earns a ‘well done’.

“The manufacturers have triumphed,” he said. “They’ve managed to convince us that it’s our fault.”

Nevertheless, Moreland is hoping that it can encourage behavioural change that results in less recycling being sent to landfill.

The confusion isn’t limited to yellow bins. The council also checked almost 2000 garbage bins and found about 40 per cent contained items that could have been recycled, such as rigid plastic or cardboard.

“Recycling can be tricky,” said Moreland city futures director Kirsten Coster.

“Conducting inspections to provide real-life examples is an effective way to help our residents recycle properly.”

Moreland isn’t the only council peeking inside its residents’ bins. Similar checks have been conducted in Maribyrnong City Council over the past two years. In 2018, 58.3 per cent of bins surveyed had at least one item that couldn’t be recycled.

Bins are also inspected in Yarra, where a fourth bin is being trialled for glass.

No council has dared raise the prospect of fines for repeat offenders – after all, what’s stopping people dumping in their neighbours’ bins?

Local councils collected 580,000 tonnes of recyclables via kerbside collection services in 2017-18, equivalent to 230 kilograms per household.

The average contamination rate, according to Sustainability Victoria, was 10.4 per cent.

As well as sending recycling to landfill, contamination can be dangerous. Plastic bags and clothing can get caught in sorting machines at recycling facilities.

Australia’s recycling system was thrown into crisis after China, a key importer of waste, announced that it would only accept waste at a contamination rate of less than 0.5 per cent.

The result was the collapse of local recycling company SKM, which had collection contracts with more than 30 local councils. The closure resulted in the diversion of thousands of tonnes of recycling to tips.