Uncovering crimes against recycling - and how you can help

by Johanna Thornton / 20 September, 2017
Photography / Charles Buenconsejo

Recycling inspector Duane Albert loves his job: “I get quite excited with a contaminated bin because then at least I can help make a difference one way or another. Otherwise I’m just lifting a lid and closing it.”

Trash Talk

We’re on the beat with a west Auckland bin cop, uncovering crimes against recycling, and finding out how you can avoid the dreaded red card.

He can tell instantly from the sea of ants crawling around the rim that this isn’t going to be pretty. Digging a little deeper into the abyss of this overstuffed bin reveals the awful truth, and the source of those ants. Under layers of cardboard lie all manner of sins – a stack of meat-soaked Tetra Pak trays, the dusty contents of a vacuum bag, a twisted old tape measure, foil candy wrappers and a grease-stained Domino’s pizza box scattered with crusty remnants. In the recycling world, this is a crime scene, and this Auckland bin cop is going to have to administer the harshest penalty in his arsenal. This felonious bin is getting a red card.

Duane Albert isn’t really a bin cop. He’s one of three Envirowaste inspectors contracted by Auckland Council to investigate the 11,000 recycling bins that sit street-side on collection day in west Auckland. He has the considerably less threatening job title of community recycling adviser, drives an unassuming work car and wears a plain, albeit eye-catching, high-vis outfit. His job isn’t about intimidation, it’s about education, and he doesn’t want to scare people off with an unnecessary air of authority. He inspects up to 500 bins a day with the sole purpose of changing people’s recycling habits for the better. Albert has 20 years in the bar industry behind him, something he says has made him good with people; a necessary skill when he’s getting all up in their trash. “I came from working nights in bars and being around intoxicated people to this, walking around outside and talking to people. I love making a difference.”

Albert really cares about what he does; he looks forward to the chats that ensue when inquisitive homeowners come out to see what he’s up to. For some, having a stranger in high-vis poke around in their bins causes stress and aggravation. For others, particularly the elderly, it’s the chance to share stories. For the rest, it’s an opportunity to be educated about the true cost of throwing the wrong thing into a recycling bin. 

Nearly 3000 tonnes’ worth of household recycling is collected on a weekly basis Auckland-wide and transported to the Visy sorting plant in Onehunga. Here, it’s dumped into a huge pile before being sorted for non-recyclables, by hand, on a conveyor belt. The sorters on the front line of these conveyor belts encounter all sorts of atrocities. There are mountains of nappies, sanitary products, clothing, electronics and car parts. It’s a time-consuming, laborious and often dangerous task to sort through this rubbish.

“It’s a huge job,” says Albert. “That’s why I stress to people the effect of them putting rotting food or nappies into their bins – some poor person has to sort that and it does create a harmful environment. And that’s just the sorting part of it.”

The 17,000 tonnes of incorrect recycling collected each year goes to landfill; that’s 12 percent of the total recycling Auckland Council collects across Auckland each year. The council’s goal is to reduce this figure to five percent. And that’s where Albert and his fellow inspectors – there are seven of them across seven areas in Auckland – come in.

Left: Recycling overflow scattered on a west Auckland street. Right Albert can tell straight away if a bin gets a pass or not. This one isn’t perfect as there are mayo remnants and plastic-coated cardboard, but it passes the test.

Out on Albert’s beat in west Auckland, which is also his home turf, the contents of people’s bins are a mixed bag of model recycling and out-and-out negligence. Once he’s lifted the lid and examined the first few layers of its contents he’ll decide to give it either a pass, an orange warning card (for first-time or light offenders) or a red card for contaminated bins. Bins that are contaminated contain 10 percent or more of any of the main offenders – plastic bags, incorrect plastic, food scraps, clothing or garden waste. Albert crosses off the culprits on the red card with a black marker so the offenders know their infraction, attaches it to their bin and turns it sideways so the collectors know not to empty it. He’ll even text or call the drivers to warn them of a particularly offensive cluster of bins. (That’s right: if you get a red card, your bin doesn’t get emptied. You’ll also find a letter in your letterbox explaining why.) If a household continues to get red-carded, they’ll get a personal visit from someone at the council. If behaviour still doesn’t improve, they’ll have their recycling bin removed. Then people are responsible for getting rid of their own rubbish, and that can get expensive, says Albert.

Albert has seen some weird stuff in bins during his time as an inspector, and every day he’s surprised by what he finds. Right up there was a whole car engine: “there was no hiding that,” he says.

“I’ve found steel oven trays, batteries, cane baskets, steel poles, the works. A lot of people will try and hide items under others. You have to rummage without going too deep because there are usually harmful items in there – needles, glass. We have gloves to wear but a needle is a needle. I could be wearing chainmail and that sucker could still get through.” One day he saw a recycling truck catch fire because someone had dumped hot ashes into their bin.

While he comes across items like furniture, prams, broken glass and bricks from time to time, the biggest culprits are the most common household items: plastic bags, which get caught in the recycling sorting machines. These little nightmares continue to be a huge problem, with people using them to tie up their recycling and chucking the lot into the bin. Disposable coffee cups are another repeat offender. These often have a plastic lining and the lids are made from the wrong type of plastic. “One coffee cup in 11,000 bins does add up. And nappies, oh they’re the worst. At the end of the day, any nappy, that’s an immediate red card.”

Albert inspects the first few layers of a recycling bin before the collection truck gets to it.

Those with preconceived notions about which households are better at recycling should throw those out the window, says Albert. He’s often surprised by whom, or which areas, are better behaved than others. Sometimes one side of the street will be angelic, while the other is a disaster zone. He thought Titirangi would be an outstanding performer, maybe because of its bohemian village atmosphere, but was shocked to find otherwise – although he’s hesitant to pinpoint certain people for their bad behaviour. “That’s not a road I want to go down.”

One thing he’s firm on though, is apartment blocks. “They are the worst. Because in that communal living situation, nobody takes responsibility. Often apartments have multiple big bins and tenants just chuck their stuff anywhere and nobody can hold you accountable. If I can, I’ll talk to the facility manager or the caretaker to see if we can give them extra signage or information, but it’s a hard road.”

Albert says that individual homeowners do try and take responsibility for their recycling. The elderly are quite good at it – they’re used to that mentality of sorting and keeping and throwing away. The good news is that the red card system is effective. “The differences are instant in most cases. I’ll do the same cycle for three or four weeks and I notice a difference within two weeks. But you’ve got to be consistent.”

Despite some of the grim scenes inside these bins, Albert remains hopeful. It helps that contaminated recycling bins motivate him.

“I get quite excited with a contaminated bin because then at least I can help make a difference one way or another. Otherwise I’m just lifting a lid and closing it. People always ask if I enjoy this job, like my friends and my family, and I say I love it. I don’t mind the rain; it’s the wind that’s a killer. Being out and walking, it just makes you feel better.” If there was one change that people could make to their recycling behaviour, what would it be?

“Accountability. Ask yourself, ‘what is the effect of me putting these items in the bin?’ If people thought of that a lot more, it would make a big difference. And stop throwing out plastic bags, please.”

Recycling advice

 

  • Reduce the use of plastic bags. Take a reusable bag to the supermarket. Have a small bin in the kitchen to put recyclables into, and empty this directly into the recycling bin, rather than using plastic bags. Some supermarkets have collection points where you can recycle plastic bags and other soft plastics like muesli bar wrappers, for example.

  • Empty and rinse items before recycling, especially pesky jam and mayo jars or pet food cans. Dirty items can ruin clean recyclables by cross-contamination, and they pose a health risk to people working at the Visy sorting plant.

  • Clothing, cloth and fabric aren’t recyclable and, like plastic bags, can jam or clog the sorting machine. Put clothes in clothing collection bins or give them to charity.

  • Food scraps don’t belong in the recycling bin. Try composting or read our story on food waste. Thankfully, the council is hoping to introduce a three-bin rubbish collection service that includes a weekly food waste service by 2020.

  • Disposable coffee cups, which are lined with plastic, can’t be recycled. Get a reusable cup, or choose a coffee outlet that has compostable cups – remember to dispose of these in a food scraps bin or at a designated compostable cup collection point.

 

What not to put in the recycling bin

 

  1. Plastic bags – full or empty.

  2. Wrong types of plastic – polystyrene, toys, furniture, wrappers. 
  1. Wrong glass – mirror, drinking glass, ceramic or light bulb. 
  1. Wrong metal – appliances, pots and pans, wire, cable or car parts. 
  1. Nappies, sanitary products or pet waste. 
  1. Food scraps. 
  1. Garden waste, lawn clippings, soil or rocks. 
  1. Cloth or clothing – fabric, carpet, bedding or footwear. 
  1. Hazardous items – batteries, gas bottles, medical, ash or paint.

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