The surprising Christmas items you're not recycling properly

A stern reminder has been issued to irresponsible recyclers ahead of the festive season with strain on the waste system set to dramatically escalate in the coming weeks.

While Australians likely have the best intentions when it comes to recycling, many environmentally-conscious consumers are still getting it wrong.

Experts have called on increased attention to be paid to responsibly disposing items associated with increased baking, alcohol drinking, present wrapping, takeaway food and single-use plastics throughout the Christmas period.

With wrapping paper – made from soft plastic – a vastly wasteful item used around Christmas, there has been a push for consumers to consider alternative material to wrap their gifts.

Wrapped presents under a Christmas tree.
Many families love to use colourful wrapping paper on Christmas – but do you know if it can be recycled? Source: AAP

Recycling wrapping paper

Planet Ark Deputy CEO Rebecca Gilling told Yahoo News Australia that while foil-coated plastic wrap was recyclable through the Red Cycle bins, it was not ideal because it had two layers.

“It’s better to start with a material that is more easily recycled,” Ms Gilling said.

“When people are shopping for wrapping paper, the best thing to do is to just buy paper.”

Small chocolates that come individually wrapped are often packed in a similar material – it might look like aluminium because of its shiny inside, but really it’s soft plastic.

“Wrappers for things like sweets and chocolate can also be recycled through the Red Cycle bin. They may look like aluminium, but they are plastic,” Ms Gilling said.

Pictured left is discarded Christmas wrapping paper and on the right is a bucket of alcoholic beverages.
Australians have been recycling Christmas items like wrapping paper and alcoholic beverage bottles wrong. Source: Getty Images

Can aluminium foil be recycled?

Keen cooks may believe they’re doing waste recycling facility workers a favour by flattening out aluminium foil for the recycling bin after using it in their holiday-season baking.

This habit however can actually compromise a large portion of correctly recycled material, according to Nestle’s Head of Packaging Jacky Nordsvan.

“If you leave it flat, it behaves like paper and contaminates the paper stream,” Ms Nordsvan told Yahoo News Australia.

“You need to scrunch it up, then when it gets collected it will end up in the aluminium stream that way.”

Ms Gilling said the scrunched-up foil needed to be at least the size of a golf ball to make it into the correct stream.

Consumers are being urged to scrunch aluminium products instead of flatten them. Source: Getty Images
Consumers are being urged to scrunch aluminium products instead of flatten them. Source: Getty Images

Recycling alcohol bottles and lids

While most consumers realise bottles must be washed out before being added to the recycling bin, they may still be making one crucial mistake – not recycling the cap separately.

Caps from bottles of wine and beer can be recycled, but they need to be contained as a larger bundle otherwise they will be too small to be processed.

Much like in the case of the foil, any caps smaller than a golf ball won’t be recycled.

“You can collect up beer bottle caps and put them in a steel can, not an aluminium can, then crush the can at the top once it’s full and put that in the recycling bin,” Ms Gilling said.

By putting steel caps in a steel can – like a diced tomato can – the items will be easier to process and have a higher chance of making it into the correct stream and later being repurposed.

Wine lids can be wrapped in aluminium foil and scrunched into a large bundle to be recycled.

A general rule to follow in the case of recyclable plastic bottles is to “empty, crush and replace”, which boils down to rinsing the bottle, crushing it, then putting its lid back on.

“That way both the lid and the bottle will get recycled,” Ms Gilling said.

While wine corks may look safe to be recycled, they actually aren’t and should always be put in tossed away as general waste.

Is single-use cutlery recyclable?

Modern cutlery designed to be disposed after one use but marketed as compostable and environmentally friendly should, in most cases, not be recycled.

“Single-use plastic plates and cutlery can’t be recycled. They don’t belong in your recycling bin, they are best avoided where possible,” Ms Gilling said.

Some families cut corners on Christmas by using disposable cutlery - but is it recyclable? Source: AAP
Some families cut corners on Christmas by using disposable cutlery - but is it recyclable? Source: AAP

“There are biodegradable alternatives, but unfortunately at the moment we don’t really have the systems that can deal with those things, and they’re a contaminant when you put them into recycling.”

If they can be put into a commercial composter after a large event they can be beneficial, but there is no way for them to be recycled when used on an individual basis.

Australasian Recycling Label

The planned universal rollout of the Australasian Recycling Label is set to make the lives of consumers far easier by detailing exactly how to recycle items correctly.

A small label on the rear of packaging will state if an item is suitable for the regular recycling bin, Red Cycle, or a regular waste bin, and what steps need to be taken to ensure it is correctly disposed of.

Consumers still in doubt over what items are safe to be recycled can check Planet Ark’s Recycling near You website.

Ms Gilling said consumers often fell victim to “wish cycling” and dumped items they believe should be re-used in recycling bins, even if they’re not suitable for them.

This was common with clothing and other household items, which may be re-usable, but don’t belong in the recycling.

She said if consumers were ever in doubt over whether something was recyclable, they should throw it in a general waste bin to avoid contamination.

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