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Week Three - Get Paper Out of the Rubbish Bin

Save 76 kilograms CO2e per person per year

· Weekly experiments

My preschooler

- Mummy, it's going to snow today. I met Snow Fairy and she told me.


- Maybe our Government met Snow Fairy, too? That might be why they're not taking climate change seriously.

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This week's experiment was to get all the paper out of my rubbish bin and into my recycling bin. For the average Canberran, each year this could save around 80kg of carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). It's a small reduction - less than 1% of the average annual footprint of 22.5 tonnes. But it's worth doing because it's so straightforward.

Or so I thought.

Think local for waste

Most Australians have kerbside recycling bins that are collected and taken to a local Material Recovery Facility. There are over 100 Material Recovery Facilities around the country and each one accepts and processes material differently. This means we can't take a national approach to recycling education.

In the ACT, we have a Recyclopaedia that tells us what's in and what's out, but it wasn't working at the time of writing. I won't bother setting out a long list of which types of paper can and can't be recycled in kerbside bins, because your system might differ from mine. Check with your local council.

Separated bins = better recycling

No one likes digging through rubbish. I should know. I've spent the last two Saturdays doing just that. If there's one phrase that'll kill your love life, it's 'Honey, we're running low on rubber gloves again.'

The best approach is to have separate bins side-by-side for rubbish and recycling. This means the small recycling bin inside gets emptied straight into the recycling bin outside. Most people do this in their kitchen, but what about the bin in the bedroom, study and bathroom? If you combine them, odds on it'll get chucked straight in the garbage, regardless of what's actually in there. You can add a second bin for recycling wherever you have a rubbish bin, or you can remove the extra rubbish bin and make people walk to the kitchen (it'll add to their 10,000 steps).

We were already doing fairly well with paper recycling. The main change I made was to put a paper recycling box under my desk and to sort waste better in the bathroom.

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What paper is recycled?

Exactly which types of paper are recycled? I can't answer for Australia, but that's a simple question for the ACT. Isn't it?

Local recycling expert, Graham Mannall, has almost three decades of industry experience in Canberra. 'Almost anything can be recycled,' Graham said. 'But it might cost too much to do it. Clean paper recycles well. Composite paper materials, like coffee cups that contain some plastic or lined paper that contains foil, can be hydro-pulped, but it may not always happen.'

I knew about some of this complexity, particularly for problem waste streams. For instance, paper shredded in home shredders usually ends up in landfill, regardless of whether it's put in the rubbish or recycling bin, because most Material Recovery Facilities don't recover it. Graham and I work for a company that's about to launch Send and Shred to deal with this particular problem. But I had no idea how many other materials fell into this grey area.

Graham went on to explain how the commodities market affects our recycling.

'Recycled paper comes in different grades and each has a different value,' Graham said. 'At the top end is printed white office paper. At the bottom end is toilet paper. The Material Recovery Facility separates out paper and sells it to a pulp mill. The pulp mill pay a price based on the international commodities market. If prices are high, the Material Recovery Facility separates out all the low-grade material and has it recycled. If prices are low, the extra processing costs too much, so some paper might be discarded. The same Facility might run different practices at different times as prices fluctuate.'

It sounds like mining. If the price for gold is high, BHP extracts as much as possible and leaves little behind. If not, they ditch the low-grade stuff and end up with a lot of waste.

But if we got the regulation or the pricing right, could all of our paper be endlessly recycled?

'No,' Graham said. 'The paper fibres get shorter each time it's processed. At some point, the paper can't be recycled anymore.'

What happens then?

'It depends,' Graham said. 'Some Material Recovery facilities send it to landfill, which is a terrible waste. Others have composting facilities. Hopefully as a society, we'll get better at this over time.'

Graham's come up with his own solution. 'If I have something with low-grade paper fibres, like egg cartons or used tissues, I put it straight in my compost. That way I know it won't go to landfill.'

Robbie Ladbrook from ACT NOWaste in ACT Government also advised putting used tissues and paper towel in the compost, but this won't work for everyone. I'd rather see a more robust kerbside recycling system. In the meantime, I've decided to put all my paper and cardboard in the recycling bin and trust that most of it gets recovered. I don't use tissues and paper towel, so that solves that.

Mixed paper recycling at Canberra's Materials Recovery Facility

  Mixed household recyclables at the Material Recovery Facility in Hume, May 2018.

How else can you reduce CO2e from household paper?

Don't buy it in the first place.

The only foolproof way to avoid generating CO2e from paper in landfill is not to buy paper. This also avoids the CO2e that goes into creating, transporting and selling the paper.

Here are some ways you could cut down on paper. Can you think of more?

- Reduce mail with a 'no junk mail' sign and electronic bank statements.

- Use handkerchiefs instead of tissues (but think twice if you're infectious).

- Use face washers or cleaning cloths rather than paper towel, disposable wipes and makeup removers.

- Take a coffee cup and takeaway container with you, or sit down and enjoy food in the cafe where you buy it.

- Only subscribe to newspapers and magazines you actually read. Switch to the electronic version if it suits.

- Buy products and food with less packaging.

Spreadsheet calculations, data sources and references in 'Notes' section, Week Three.