Spike in recyclables sent to landfill during COVID-19 lockdowns

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More recyclables are being sent to landfill during COVID-19 lockdowns as Victorians isolating at home put takeaway food containers, coffee cups and parcel delivery wrapping in the wrong bin.

A report from government agency Sustainability Victoria found 20 per cent of 540,000 tonnes of kerbside recyclables, or 110,000 tonnes, went to landfill between July 2020 and May 2021. This is an increase of 3 per cent compared to the long-term average.

Garbage is processed at Melbourne Regional Landfill in Ravenhall.Credit:Joe Armao

The report blamed the spike on an increase in contamination due to COVID-19, combined with increased levels of low-value recyclables, such as fine pieces of glass.

Rubbish collection companies are forced to send recyclables contaminated with waste materials such as nappies, soft plastics, food scraps, clothing and grass clippings to landfill.

Almost half of kerbside recycling sent to landfill in 2020-21 was contamination, up from a quarter the previous year and 36 per cent the year before that.

Peter Anderson, chief executive of the Victorian Waste Management Association, said some waste companies were reporting total kerbside recycling contamination levels above 35 per cent.

“More people are getting takeaway food. We’re increasing the volume, exponentially, of our packaging,” he said.

“People are putting the wrong garbage in the wrong bin … It’s putting more and more pressure on landfill, all the time.”

Contaminated takeaway packaging includes pizza boxes and plastic containers holding food scraps and bottles with cigarette butts left inside.

A Sustainability Victoria report has found 20 per cent of 540,000 tonnes of kerbside recyclables, or 110,000 tonnes, went to landfill between July 2020 and May 2021.Credit:Joe Armao

People are also receiving more online packages and doing more gardening, then incorrectly putting clippings in the recycling bin.

The landfill levy will almost double over three years from $66 a tonne to $126. The first increase came into effect in July.

Mr Anderson said the cost of the increased landfill would ultimately be passed on to the consumer through hikes in council rates.

An Infrastructure Australia report released in December found household rubbish, including general waste, increased 20 per cent during last year’s lockdowns.

Victorian Waste Management Association president Adrien Scott, who runs waste collection company SOLO Resource Recovery, said he was currently seeing volumes of about 15 per cent more than pre-pandemic levels.

“The more people don’t know or don’t choose to apply themselves, the harder it is for [waste] to be recycled,” he said.

“[Then] there’s the wishful recyclers who put a piece of clothing that they would normally donate to a charity shop direct in the [recycling] bin, and you can’t do that.”

Jeff Angel, director of environment group Boomerang Alliance, said the blame shouldn’t only be put on consumers, but also on poor collection systems and producers creating wasteful packaging.

“If there aren’t sufficient collection systems conveniently servicing the consumer then you can’t blame people for not knowing what to do with [waste] or how to recycle it,” he said.

“It was already inherent in the system before COVID. It’s amplified existing bad practices.”

The waste experts said incoming programs in Victoria such as a four-bin system and container deposit scheme would help reduce landfill levels, but more investment was needed to develop a strong market for recycled products.

Suzanne Toumbourou, Australian Council of Recycling chief executive, said the pandemic had also caused delays in increasing Australia’s onshore recycling capacity, despite significant investment since waste export bans were announced.

However, she was hopeful new app, Recycle Mate, being rolled out nationally next month would help reduce landfill by helping consumers identify the correct bin for their waste.

Australia’s biggest rubbish collection company Cleanaway reports an up to 10 per cent increase in volume and slightly higher levels of contamination in its sorting facilities during Melbourne’s most recent lockdown.

However, Bruno Pronesti, branch manager at Cleanaway’s 300-hectare Ravenhall tip Melbourne Regional Landfill, said more landfill came through the tip during last year’s lockdowns.

“Anecdotally, some of this was caused by contamination increases in [sorting facilities], meaning that some recycling had to be sent to landfill,” he said.

“Thankfully, we’re not seeing the same increase in volumes, like we did last year.”

The percentage of recyclables sent to landfill in 2019-20 was 26 per cent, however, this increase was due to the temporary closure of the former SKM Recycling’s sorting facilities, rather than contamination.

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