Garbage in, Garbage out

Doing the right thing here means more than recycling; it means rethinking, and so reshaping, the place we want to be.
– John Vella, 2006, “Trailertrashed” Island no.107

My local council has only one bin into which we put everything and it’s sorted into recyclables and landfill, at the Atlas Materials Recovery Facility. The City of Stirling says its recycling and rubbish service is

simple and convenient to use for all the City’s residents.

The system is called Single Bin Recycling: A Truly Sustainable Process which has

increased the amount of domestic waste being recycled from 10 percent to more than 60 percent. This success is unmatched by any other local authority in Western Australia.

When their PR machine gets going, it does sound amazing, and maybe I’m a little more convinced than I have been in the past, but if it’s so amazing, why doesn’t everyone do it? I’ve recently found out through Treehugger and the Closet Environmentalist that other places do use a single bin system. An article in The Economist talks about TiTech’s rubbish sorting system which uses spectroscopy. At the City of Stirling, it’s not so high-tech and people pick out glass (broken glass goes to landfill), plastic bottles (PET & HDPE) and aluminium cans, and an electro-magnet recovers steel cans.

Organic waste, including paper, is turned into “high quality compost” which is then used in agriculture (after being transported 200km to a farm near Calingiri, WA). The City of Stirling came up with this idea because the Western Australian government has adopted a vision of zero waste to landfill by the year 2020.

contents of a typical single bin All my kitchen scraps (and anything else that’s biodegradable eg. dog hair, garden waste) goes into my compost bin. This means my rubbish bin doesn’t smell so much because it doesn’t have rotting food in it. It also means the only organic material I’m contributing to the sorting process is paper and cardboard. Paper can be recycled back to paper, rather than going into compost (I wonder how the ink affects their compost). So I don’t like this aspect of the system.

The City of Stirling’s statistics for improvement of recycling are shown in this diagram, where 9.4% of rubbish is recyclable packaging (glass, aluminium cans, steel cans, type 1 & 2 plastic). This could be equated with the original amount of 10% of waste recycled. So basically their “compost manufacture” is where all the new recycling is coming from. Most people don’t make their own compost, so I guess the system caters to them.

The single bin system is only for sorting rubbish and The Economist article goes on to discuss the difficulties of recycling plastic, because there are so many different types. At the City of Stirling only type 1 & 2 plastic is recycled, the other types and plastic bags and wrappings go to landfill.

A solution to the problems of recycling is discussed by Paul Palmer in The Death of Recycling from Rachel’s Democracy & Health News #900. Redesigning products for reuse is a more sustainable practice than continuing to use old technology to recycle paper, plastic, glass, metal, etc. Redesigning for reuse produces zero waste.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart have previously written about this in Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002)

If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle (as opposed to cradle-to-grave) system of nutrient flow…To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things – products, packaging, and systems – from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist. (p.104)

Here’s some other things to read about trash, rubbish and recycling.
Everyday Trash takes a closer look at what we throw away.

Scientists at Purdue University have developed a biorefinery, a generator that’s fuelled by rubbish. They developed it for use by the U.S. military, but one of the inventors,

Ladisch foresees a time when the biorefinery could be used at a variety of factories, restaurants or stores. The biorefinery could probably be used to generate a little extra electricity at any place that generates a fair amount of food and scrap waste.

I’ve recently come across On Garbage by John Scanlan (Reaktion, 2005). I’ve added it to my way-too-long reading list. I’ll get to it one day. Find it at your local library.


5 thoughts on “Garbage in, Garbage out

  1. Hi ClareSnow (new winter name?),

    Excellent referenced article on the ever perplexing systems of waste reduction. One of our contributors at the Coffee House graduated in materials science and also in materials design so, I must talk to him more about plastics; why so many different grades? and, how can we design plastics for zero waste without compromising design?

    In my area of London we have two different trucks come up the road every Monday. One for waste and another for all-in-one recyclables. What annoys me is that they don’t like taking plastic food containers but are happy to take bottles!


  2. Hi Matt,

    no its not winter that has changed my name. I’ve decided to get rid of the alias and this is my real name. I have an idea that I love snow, but seeing as I’ve never actually experienced snow, I think if I lived where it snowed I’d get sick of it pretty soon (my mum tells me its just wet, but so is the beach and I love that!). One day I’ll go somewhere where it snows and find out.

    The recyclers not
    >taking plastic food containers but are happy to take bottles!
    might be because greasy and dirty plastic is not recycled. greasy or dirty glass is ok
    >because they are processed at high temperatures, so
    >contamination doesn’t affect the recycling.

    I learnt these facts from Alina the environmental engineer in training. (and she has refs too)


  3. Hi Clare

    I think it better people use their real name. As to snow, skiing is fantastic! Snow is incredibly beautiful to watch falling and makes a landscape so quiet as it deadens noise. But yes, once it goes to slush it’s a nuisance or, if it freezes over it becomes dangerous. Pluses and minuses all wrapped up into one weather event! :)

  4. I read a book called Compost that I borrowed from Mirrabooka library. It was fascinating. The author discusses the issue of single bin recycling, and points out that the compost is low grade and contaminated with heavy metals and other nasties, so can’t be used to increase the fertility of Australia’s food production soil. Basically, it’s suitable for public landscaping and that’s about it. In that light, I’m reconsidering whether I should be foraging the rosemary in the carpark at the IGA opposite that *#@!!! Ikea shop on Ellen Stirling Boulevard.

  5. Hi Sandra,
    Its good to hear from someone who lives nearby :)
    Thanks for telling me about the Compost book you read. Is the author Victoria Heywood? I’ll have to read it. I’ve only read the council’s propaganda and the article from the Economist magazine. I wondered if it could really be as good as they said and why more councils don’t do it. The compost is made at a farm and they say the end product is

    perfect for use in depleted agricultural soils.

    I wouldn’t want to be eating their produce.
    I’ve often seen that rosemary and thought how lush it is, maybe the heavy metals are just what it needs!

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