15 Jan 2019

Recycling centres struggling with increased volumes over summer

2:06 pm on 15 January 2019

It's the hottest, busiest, smelliest time of year for recycling centres - and, one year after China stopped taking our plastics, some are still struggling to move thousands of tonnes of waste.

Bales of mixed plastic wait for export at Wellington's recycling facility at Seaview.

Bales of mixed plastic wait for export at Wellington's recycling facility at Seaview. Photo: RNZ / Nina Fowler

On a recent morning, trucks could be seen rolling into Wellington's recycling facility at Seaview, laden with paper, cardboard, glass bottles and plastics.

Once inside, the colourful mess was tipped out, dropped onto a conveyer belt and sorted, first by machine, then by hand.

It was very clear to the sort line's supervisor, Denise Smiler, that not everyone got it right when they filled up their kerbside bins. She listed some of the worst items she'd seen in her eight years at the plant.

"Appliances, so microwaves, kettles... Car parts, batteries, food - especially food that has maggots in it. Sanitary pads, nappies. All of that isn't very nice to handle... Like needles, EpiPens... I've had one of those stuck in my finger."

Denise Smiler

Denise Smiler is a sorting line supervisor at Wellington's recycling facility at Seaview. Photo: RNZ / Nina Fowler

Site manager Brendan Walker said summer was particularly busy, with up to 10 percent more material coming in.

"Obviously after Christmas, there's a lot more packaging - a lot more packaging of children's toys, etc. We also see a lot more drink bottles coming through."

Leaving the capital and heading north, to New Zealand's largest city, Auckland Council estimates its households create 10 percent more waste over the summer months compared to other times of the year - or, to put it another way, enough extra rubbish and recycling to fill 295 double-decker buses.

Grahame Christian is the managing director of Smart Environmental, which provides recycling services to about 20 local authorities, including Thames-Coromandel and Queenstown.

Not only was it an incredibly busy time of year, but the industry was still reeling from China's ban on 24 different types of waste imports, which took effect on 1 January 2018, he said.

"The repercussions are significant, both from access to markets and price - probably the one that's absolutely crippling us is price."

He estimated the price for a tonne of mixed plastics, which usually includes grades three to seven, had dropped from about $135 to nothing at all, and in some cases they now had to pay to have it taken away. The price for a tonne of mixed paper, which was about 60 percent of what they collected, had dropped from about $100 to about $30.

At its worst, Smart Environmental was forced to stockpile about 4000 tonnes of material.

"We still have very large piles around the country - probably half of what we had previously - but it still does pose a problem."

Both Oji Fibre Solutions, which owns Wellington's Seaview plant, and Smart Environmental have found new markets in Southeast Asia for the material they need to send offshore.

Some of those plastics are being sent to Malaysia, which is struggling to stop illegal factories from burning and dumping what they're unable - or unwilling - to process correctly.

Both companies said they were confident their material was being recycled responsibly, and Oji said it hadn't had any major stockpiling issues.

Even so, and even if all the right items end up in kerbside bins, there is growing public awareness that recycling alone won't solve the world's plastic pollution crisis.

Employees sort through recycling material at the Wellington recycling facility at Seaview.

Employees at the Wellington plant sort tossed-out plastics so they can be sent to other facilities at home and abroad for processing. Photo: RNZ / Nina Fowler

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said the government was looking at how to move beyond its ban on single-use plastic bags, which takes effect on 1 July.

"We need to look at the whole supply chain and ensure that we are designing and manufacturing and selling products that, at the end of their life, their materials can be recovered and reused, or they can go into a form that nature can absorb."

The options on the table included mandatory product stewardship for certain items, such as tyres, and expanding the landfill levy.

She expected to release further waste reduction recommendations in February or March.

Until then, Denise Smiler - on behalf of her team on the sort line at Seaview - has a simple message for people putting out their kerbside bins.

"I wish they knew the process and what happens with their recycling after they put it out, that we sort it by hand, and the effects that it has on us - on our health and our safety."

Where Wellington's recycling ends up

  • Aluminium and steel cans go to Macaulay Metals and are then sent overseas to be reprocessed.
  • Glass is mixed with other raw materials and fed into a furnace where it is melted down to make bottles and jars.
  • Paper goes to the Oji Fibre Solutions mill in Penrose, Auckland (this mill uses 100 percent recovered paper to make corrugated cardboard).
  • Cardboard goes to the Oji Fibre Solutions mill in Kinleith, Tokoroa (this mill uses recycled cardboard and new wood fibres to make new cardboard).
  • Clear PET (grade one) goes to Flight Plastics in Lower Hutt.
  • Most milk bottles go to Budget Plastics in Palmerston North.
  • Most other mixed plastics are sent to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Source: Wellington City Council and Oji Fibre Solutions

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs