Time to get it sorted

A mountain of contaminated glass from a MRF. Photo by Gina Dempster.
A mountain of contaminated glass from a MRF. Photo by Gina Dempster.
Glass sorted by colour can be recycled at the O-I factory in Auckland. Photo by Simon Williams.
Glass sorted by colour can be recycled at the O-I factory in Auckland. Photo by Simon Williams.
Last year bottles from the O-I factory contained 67% recycled content. Photo supplied.
Last year bottles from the O-I factory contained 67% recycled content. Photo supplied.

Gillian Dempster
Gillian Dempster

Mingling is better suited to social occasions than recycling collections, writes Gina Dempster.

It's a little ironic that my last ODT column ran with the standfirst: ''People putting out their recycling have a right to know where it will end up''.

A month later, Queenstown residents know exactly where their glass recycling ends up: in the landfill.

Mountain Scene broke the story last week that glass recycling collected in Queenstown is being sent to the landfill.

Reactions from locals have ranged from ''It's a huge disappointment'' to ''That's it for me ... My blue bin will be ignored, everything goes in general rubbish''.

It's the worst possible story for recyclers, because the whole kerbside recycling system runs on trust.

Householders and businesses expect the companies picking up their recycling will make sure it is ''recycled'' (which most people define as being made into something new).

And unfortunately, (like love) once the trust is gone, it's very hard to get it back.

So what's gone wrong in Queenstown?

Well, no-one is accusing any of the recyclers involved of not meeting their contract obligations in regards to kerbside recycling.

That seems pretty weird, right! They're all doing what they are contracted to do, but the result is that Queenstown's glass is going to the landfill. How can that be?

Well, it comes down to the collection process.

I mentioned in my last article that commingled collections (where all recyclables are collected in the same bin) have led to problems with contamination around the world, especially where glass is involved.

And yes, Queenstown's kerbside recycling, including glass, is collected in one bin.

The problem is that when glass and other recyclable materials like cardboard and plastic are tipped into the truck and then squashed down to make room for more recycling, they get scrambled together.

The glass breaks into small pieces and mixes up with small objects already in the recycling: bottle lids, any food waste that has snuck in, bits of cardboard and paper.

Then it's all tipped back out on to a conveyor belt, ready for mechanical sorting. MRFs (Materials Recovery Facilities, pronounced ''Merf'') can identify and sort distinct materials such as plastic bottles and cans.

But they struggle to separate out the multitude of smaller and broken items from each other.

It's like trying to unscramble an egg.

I've seen a contaminated glass pile from a MRF up close.

At first glance, I thought it must have been a pile of rubbish, and that the glass must have been put somewhere else!

But no, that's what contaminated glass looks like: rubbish.

The pile was full of random objects such as old sneakers, CDs and cigarette packets, and there were pumpkin plants growing out the top.

It's not surprising that contaminated glass isn't useful for anything.

Lots of Wanaka people have been worried that Wanaka's recycled glass must be going to the landfill too, but that's not the case.

In Wanaka there is a different collection process specified in the contract between the council and the recycling contractor.

Wanaka kerbside glass is collected in a separate bin and sorted at the kerbside into different colours (clear, green and brown).

Because of this, the glass that's collected from households in Wanaka can be sent up to Auckland to be made into new bottles.

So why would you choose a commingled collection?

Well, for a while they were seen as a cheap way to collect recycling, and people believed in the power of MRFs to do the unscrambling.

Unfortunately, as councils including Invercargill and Queenstown have learned, MRFs can't do magic, especially when it comes to broken glass.

A commingled collection might seem cheaper upfront, but what about the costs of dealing with high levels of contamination during the life of the contract?

Until recently, Fulton Hogan has been paid to take the Queenstown glass, crush it and use it in roading. Was that cost accounted for when the collection system was chosen?

And what about the current costs of sending all Queenstown's glass to landfill, when the gate charge is $188 per tonne?

At least 1500 tonnes of glass are collected for recycling in Queenstown every year, so that's going to add up pretty quickly.

Then there's the cost to New Zealand's reputation as a tourist destination. We market ourselves as 100% pure.

Our environment is our tourism product.

Visitors expect to see at least the same level of care for the environment as they see at home, and you can be pretty sure that it doesn't mean throwing 40% of your recycling in the landfill.

Queenstown runs on tourism, so it's not extravagant to invest in a recycling system that does the job.

You'd have to say it's money well spent to protect your reputation and all the businesses that depend on it.

There's also the impact on the wine industry, which sees sustainability as a cornerstone.

New Zealand Winegrowers, the national organisation for New Zealand's grape and wine sector, says that ''the wine industry's roots are deeply embedded in sustainability'' and 94% of its vineyards are certified as sustainable.

Glass is the container of choice for the wine industry.

I'm sure local vineyards are not happy about bottles with their labels on going to the landfill.

And it takes the rosy edge off the tourist experience - a bottle of Central Otago pinot, the sun setting over the Remarkables - if the bottle is going from the recycling bin to the rubbish dump.

That's one reason why recycling is important: it's a baseline these days for caring about the environment.

Recycling reduces the waste we dump at the landfill, extending the life of the landfill. Land is in such demand for housing these days; imagine trying to find (or afford) new land to use as a landfill around Queenstown!

Recycling also reclaims resources and means we don't have to extract new resources from the earth.

It saves energy in the production process, and reduces carbon emissions, which cause climate change.

Recycling is central to a way of thinking in which the environment is valued and our impact on it is minimised, the opposite of the throwaway society.

So if you're wondering whether you should keep bothering putting out the recycling, the answer is yes!

It's not a perfect system and there are glitches.

But the good news about stories like this is that when the dirty little secret is out in the open, the way recycling works can change.

Imagine how different it could be if the people using the recycled material to make something new (the ''reprocessers'') were asked about what they needed when recycling contracts were being written.

Often reprocessors are located offshore, but not in the case of glass.

And the fact is that O-I, the glass factory in Auckland, has capacity to take more clean, colour-sorted glass recycling to include in its production process.

Once councils know what the reprocessors need, they could write recycling contracts that would make sure the whole recycling chain is going to work.

The contracts could include specific collection systems and/or maximum contamination levels that could be monitored regularly.

And there would be much less risk to the council of having to unexpectedly pay extra costs to send contaminated recycling to landfill.

It's a mystery to me why more council contracts don't specify a colour-sorted, separate glass collection system such as in Wanaka and Dunedin, so their glass can be made back into bottles.

Surely that is real recycling?

Yes, it costs a little bit more.

But it saves a lot of embarrassment and downside risk, which can potentially be very costly to industries that rely on our environmental reputation, such as tourism and wine.

And it takes a long time, and a lot of money, to get trust back once it's gone.

- Gina Dempster is communications officer at Wanaka Wastebusters. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


Recycling insights

• Unlike most packaging materials, glass is infinitely 100% recyclable.

The O-I factory in Auckland recycles clean (uncontaminated) colour-sorted glass into new bottles. The recycled glass needs to be sorted into clear, brown and green before going to O-I.

• Glass from Wanaka and Dunedin kerbside recycling collections and Wastebusters' (in Wanaka and Alexandra) business, events and drop-off recycling are made into new bottles at O-I.

• Bottles made at the O-I factory in 2015 contained an average of 67% recycled content. Every 10% of recycled glass used reduces carbon emissions by about 5%.

• Pyrex and drinking glasses shouldn't be recycled. They cause bubbles and breakages in new glass bottles.

• Clean glass that is not colour-sorted can be crushed and reused as a roading aggregate. Glass from the Alexandra kerbside recycling collection is used in roads.

• Highly contaminated glass (i.e., glass that has plastic, cardboard, food and other materials mixed up with it) is not suitable for either roads or new bottles. Glass recycled in Queenstown is going to the landfill.

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