Recycling Is Confusing, But It Shouldn’t Be. Here’s A Simple Guide.

Recycling Is Confusing, But It Shouldn’t Be. Here’s A Simple Guide.

Being across the ins-and-outs of what you can pop into which bin can be tricky, but it really shouldn’t be! Sometimes the information is just difficult to navigate. So, here’s a straightforward run down of what belongs where to make your life a little easier (and the Earth a whole lot happier).

Why the war on waste?

All waste materials represent an investment of water, energy, and natural resources, such as coal, oil, and plant life. Once waste goes to landfill, greenhouse gases begin to manifest, land is contaminated, and there is an increased risk to marine life from toxic overflow. The items begin to break down, which can take anywhere up to 1 million years (i.e. never) for some materials we use every day, like glass.

Recycling is the process by which waste materials are diverted from entering the waste stream (a.k.a. landfill), to be sorted and eventually used to produce new products. Manufacturing new products using recycled materials requires far less energy, water and resources than producing a virgin product (something brand new).

What can you do about it?

To reduce the impact of waste, you can refuse, reuse or recycle a product. You can start by saying no to things like plastic drinking straws and paper receipts, maybe invest in a reusable coffee cup or drink bottle, and take steps to become a proactive (and educated) recycler.

Now, to the actual recycling part. This is where it can get tricky…

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What can go in a standard recycling bin?

Important: Before you place anything in a recycling bin you need to ensure that there is no solid food scraps, leftover liquid, or any other substance remaining — only a small trace of food or liquid is acceptable. All items should be rinsed, scraped, and as close to empty as possible. Remove caps and lids as these can cause havoc in the recycling system (more on that, below). Recyclables should never be put in a plastic bag, they should always be loose in a dedicated recycling bin.

Keep in mind that every recycling system is slightly different and you can always check your local guidelines here.

Bottle tops, caps and lids

Bottle tops, caps and lids should always be removed from jars and bottles! They’re generally made of recyclable materials, however, because of their size they can be difficult to sort and cause issues in the recycling process. In this case, you can make sorting easier by filling a recyclable container (like a used milk carton or water bottle) with a collection of small items, such as bottle caps.

Paper and Cardboard

It’s important to know that most coffee cups (separated from the lids) are a no-no when it comes to standard recycling! Any waxed cardboard (the kind you’d find on a milk or juice carton — and yes, those pesky takeaway coffee cups!) cannot be recycled. However, it’s worth taking a peek at the lid or base of a cup as more and more businesses are investing in newer recyclable or biodegradable products. Yay! It could be worth investing in a reusable glass or plastic cup, as some cafes even offer a discount for your efforts. Double yay!

Paper and cardboard makes up the bulk of recyclables in Australia. Most households and businesses use millions of tonnes of paper products every year. But luckily, Australia is one of the best in the world when it comes recycling paper and cardboard correctly. It’s important to note that not all councils will accept cardboard items like pizza boxes in the recycling system, so it’s worth checking your local regulations here. Folding boxes flat and removing staples, tape and stickers is a huge help, too.

Steel and Aluminium

Australians use billions of steel and aluminium products annually, like soft drink cans and tins of fruit and vegetables. Luckily, aluminium and steel products are totally recyclable and actually require less energy to produce than virgin products. Make sure to rinse and crush cans flat, and blunt or cover any sharp edges.


First things first: polystyrene is not recyclable, it should always be disposed of as general waste and placed in a bag to catch broken pieces. As mentioned above, it’s important to remove all lids and caps from things like plastic bottles and milk jugs. When recycling plastic make sure you check the code of the product (usually found on the base or a lid). Most Australian recycling systems accept codes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, however it’s worth checking your local recycling guidelines (as some will accept code 7). Common plastic products like cutlery and drinking straws may not have a visible product code but are usually made of polypropylene (code 5) and can be placed in standard recycling bins. Plastic bags, bin liners, cellophane and clear plastic wrap are not recyclable as they can get tangled in machinery. Medical items made from plastic are classified as contaminated, and so are not accepted in the recycling system either.


Glass is a tricky material to deal with, and it’s important to differentiate when it comes to recycling. Glass beverage bottles and jars can be recycled if they are unbroken, however, glass items such as light bulbs and drinking glasses must be placed in general waste. Always make sure broken pieces and anything with a sharp edge is placed in an individual bag in a general waste bin.


What needs a specialist recycling bin?

Most specialist bins can be found at local recycling centres, however, if you frequently use a certain kind of product at home or at work you can request to have a specialist bin through organisations like Planet Ark or Cleanaway.

Organics & Food Waste

Organic waste includes materials such as food, garden and lawn clippings. It can also include biodegradable animal and plant based materials — such as kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, or egg shells. The recovery and recycling of garden and food waste reduces greenhouse gases as well as water consumption, and protects our soil resources. You can request an organic waste bin from your local council, or set up a composting system at home.


The materials found in batteries are non-renewable but can actually be recycled an indefinite amount of times. In Australia, millions of handheld and household batteries (the kind you’ll find in kids toys, calculators, laptops, mobile phones, power tools etc.) are consumed each year and only a small percentage are recycled. You can request a battery disposal at home or work, or visit a recycling centre that has a dedicated battery bin.

Fluorescent Tubes, Lamps & Globes

Compact fluorescent lights use up to 80% less electricity than incandescent light bulbs. Although fluorescent lights are energy efficient, there are still small amounts of mercury inside every fluorescent bulb. It is important to place bulbs and globes into dedicated bins at recycling centres, and if broken, place items in a separate bag to go into general waste.


Electronic waste (including office technology, mobile phones, and printer cartridges) can contain toxic materials that are hazardous, difficult to dispose of and potentially damaging to the environment. Certain waste products, such as mobile phones, can be collected by specialist groups like Mobile Muster from drop-off points nationwide. Planet Ark will also happily take used printer cartridges and can even supply you with your own bin if you work or live somewhere that does a lot of printing. If you’ve collected a few items for disposal you can request an E-waste collection at home or work, or find a local recycling centre that has a dedicated bin.


If you’d like to learn more, Planet Ark’s Recycling Week website is a great place to start and Clean Up Australia also have some great resources with a little more info on how our actions can impact the planet. Recycling can be a little tricky and confusing, so if you think we’ve got any of this wrong or you have great info to add, email us! — we always want to know more!