5 most common recycling questions explained - RNY News

5 most common recycling questions explained

November 4, 2021

Rachael Ridley


Over the years, Planet Ark staff have been asked all kinds of recycling questions by the general public and even family and friends! We’ve noticed there are a few subjects that continue to puzzle even the most environmentally minded of Australians. So, without further ado, we present to you answers to the most common recycling questions.

Question 1: What are ‘soft plastics’ and why can’t I recycle them at home? 

The general rule of thumb is if you can scrunch the plastic in your hand, it’s a ‘soft plastic’ and cannot be put in your recycling bin at home. Common soft plastics include plastic bags, cling wrap, pasta and rice bags, lolly wrappers, frozen food bags and the list goes on. 

The reason it’s important to keep soft plastics out of your recycling bin at home is because they can cause a lot of drama at the recycling facility where they often become tangled in the machinery. Fortunately, REDcycle has recycling bins at most supermarkets, and they recycle lots of different types of soft plastics. Find out which types of soft plastics they accept before you drop them off.

Question 2: What’s the deal with beverage cartons? Are they recyclable?

Yes! Beverage and food cartons can cause confusion for two reasons: there are two types of cartons with one type being a little bit harder to recycle than the other in current recycling facilities; and some councils do not accept both kinds of cartons for recycling.

Let’s tackle that first part. Cartons are mostly made from a renewable material called paperboard, which is essentially just thicker and more rigid paper. Cartons containing fresh products (found in the fridge at the store) have a thin inner and outer layer of plastic that lines the paperboard. However, cartons containing long-life products like long-life milk (generally found on shelves at the store) have an extra layer of plastic and an added aluminium lining to protect the contents. This makes them a bit trickier to recycle, so some recyclers in Australia prefer not to receive them due to the oversupply of recycled paper fibre. In other parts of the world where the demand for fibre is high, recycling rates for beverage cartons are as high as 50 per cent.

The majority of Australians are able to recycle fresh cartons either at home through their council service or through Container Deposit Schemes (for cartons under 1L). Some councils are not currently accepting long-life cartons for recycling, but this could change in the coming years. Tetra Pak has recently signed an agreement with saveBOARD to establish a dedicated carton recycling facility in NSW that will turn used cartons into walls! It has plans to build more recycling facilities in various states in Australia, which will increase recycling of cartons and provide councils with more recycling services. 

To find out if your council accepts cartons for recycling, visit the beverage cartons page on Recycling Near You.   

Question 3: What the heck do I do with my pizza box?

This one has caused some heated debates in our social media comments! Pizza boxes are recyclable, BUT there is a caveat. Generally, there are lots of leftover pieces of cheese and toppings stuck to at least one side of the box, as well as a fair amount of oil. These leftovers are referred to as ‘contamination’ because they have degraded the quality of the cardboard. 

So, what to do? The easy option is to rip your pizza box in half and only recycle the top bit that doesn’t have oil and food on it, but you can also use your judgement here. Small amounts of food contamination are accepted, so if there isn’t much grease and leftovers on the box, we reckon it’s ok to recycle the whole thing. If you have a home compost system or your local council provides a FOGO (Food Organics and Garden Organics) service, this is a great alternative for the piece with food stuck to it. But please throw that blasted plastic centrepiece in the bin!

Question 4: To rinse or not to rinse?

Rinsing your packaging before you put it in the recycling bin is only necessary when there is leftover food, drink or grease on it. All recyclables are cleaned when they are processed, so all you are required to do is remove any food scraps or leftover liquid and give them a quick rinse with a small amount of water to get rid of excess residue. 

Why is that important? Food, drink, grease and oil can contaminate recyclables and degrade their quality. Rinsing your dirty packaging ensures it will be turned into a higher quality recycled material. 

Tip! Conserving our precious water is way more important than getting your recycling sparkling clean, so after you’ve washed your dishes, rinse your recycling in the dishwater to save water.

Question 5: Recycling coffee cups – yay or nay?

Some of you – particularly those fond of the ABC and Craig Reucassel – may think this is a settled matter and that everyone knows you can’t put single-use coffee cups in the recycling bin. But recent Planet Ark research conducted by Pollinate found 47% of Australians still think coffee cups can be recycled at home, with 11% unsure. 

And to be fair, the confusion is justified. After all, coffee cups are made from paper, right? Isn’t that the same as a cereal box? Well, the difference between a paper coffee cup and a box of cornflakes is a thin plastic lining. This lining requires specific recycling equipment to separate it from the paper so both materials can be recycled. Unfortunately, Australia does not currently have the infrastructure to process the huge quantity of single-use coffee cups we use and throw away (2.7 million every day!). That’s one of the reasons why it’s better to have your coffee in crockery or a reusable cup whenever possible.


Rachael Ridley

Rachael joined Planet Ark in early 2019 after eight years working in media and publishing as a producer, editor and writer. Rachael loves using her skills in content creation and communication to instigate positive environmental behaviour change. Outside of work, Rachael enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music and patting dogs.