Recycling: “Shocking” garbage collector act exposes bigger system problem

A security camera has captured the moment a garbage collector broke the cardinal rule of rubbish collecting: mixing recycling with general waste in the same truck.

In “shocking” CCTV footage that was taken from outside an apartment complex in Melbourne’s southeast, showing a worker wheel out a red-lidded (rubbish) 660-litre metal bin and a yellow-lidded (mixed recycling) bin to the back of a rubbish truck.

He first loads the red bin and watches as plastic bags are dumped in. Then pushes that inside before repeating his actions with the yellow-lidded bin, watching as cardboard and other materials are crushed in the back of the truck.

Resident Susan McKenna told the ABC she was “shocked” when she first realised the waste was all being mixed together, but that this incident happened weekly.

“I can’t believe in this day and age when people are so diligent about recycling that all their efforts are literally going to waste,” she said.

Ms McKenna said the private waste contractor, who she did not want to name, told her there was high levels of non-recyclable rubbish mixed in with the recycling at her apartment complex – when recycling is “contaminated” like this, all material must go to landfill.

But Ms McKenna had never seen the waste workers check the contents of the bins, and said she only ever saw one truck sent to the building at a time.

A spokesperson from the company told the ABC waste collectors tried their best but faced the “huge issue” of contamination in apartment buildings.

“Everyone wants to point the finger at the waste companies but we’re bound by what’s out there,” a spokesperson said, adding that they “can’t make people care”.

They said there were many factors complicating rubbish collection, including different recycling standards in different council areas and increases to the state’s waste levy

“It costs to be green, it costs to do the right thing, and a lot of people don’t have the money to do that in this environment,” they said.

On July 1, 2021 the Victorian government increased the waste levy to $125.90 per tonne of waste sent to landfill, rising from $105.90 in 2021-22. The levy cost $44 per tonne in 2011-12, when it was known as the “landfill levy”, according to the Environmental Protection Authority Victoria.

Outraged, Ms McKenna contacted her local council Glen Eira, who said it was only responsible for signing off on the building’s waste management plan.

Mayor Jim Magee said council could not do anything about potential collection issues because the task was contracted to a private company.

“There‘s no governing rules, we’ve got no authority over them, we can’t impose penalties or restrictions over them,” he told the ABC.

“I think legislation is the only thing, because community runs on rules.”

Cr. Magee reportedly wrote to the state environment minister in February, calling for the government to intervene but was yet to receive a reply.

The video points to the larger issue of waste management in Multi Unit Developments (MUDs, like units and apartments) that are becoming a growing problem for the waste sector; especially when most buildings hire private contractors to collect their waste than using council-funded and regulated services.

A 2019 Auditor-General report criticised the “significant gaps” in waste management regulation, particularly in MUDs, most of which go without kerbside waste collection or offering a range of waste services.

“While councils can influence how much space new MUDs allocate for waste infrastructure through the planning process, they currently do not require new or existing MUDs that are serviced by commercial operators to offer commingled and organics recycling services,” the report concluded.

“Most MUDs have only one waste collection service — for landfill.”

Victoria has, however, embarked on a multimillion-dollar investment in transforming its waste management through the state’s new waste regulator Recycling Victoria.

Over a decade the state will see the rollout of a four bin kerbside system and container deposit scheme. But it will still not cover private waste collection.

It is not the first time a private waste collection company has defended its workers from public backlash after being caught mixing rubbish and recycling in the same trucks.

In November, collectors from Urban Waste – which services almost 500 apartment buildings and major events in Melbourne – were caught emptying yellow mixed recycling bins into red waste bins.

The company told NCA NewsWire the yellow bins were already “contaminated” by non-recyclable waste – it could face a fine of up to $5000 per load of recycling waste containing more than 5 per cent contaminated waste.

“Our drivers made the correct decision to not transport contaminated bins to the recycling plant which could cause further contamination on a broader scale,” the statement said at the time.

“This is something all waste companies face on a daily basis.” is not suggesting Urban Waste workers were responsible for this recent incident.

Australian Council of Recycling chief executive Suzanne Toumbourou, speaking about another rubbish and recycling commingling controversy in July, told this “outlier behaviour” was the “last thing the industry wants to see”.

Ms Toumbourou said Australian recycling technology had “come a long way, particularly over the last few years — we have become strong recyclers”.

“We need to support the community’s confidence in recycling outcomes,” she said.

Originally published as Garbage collector breaks cardinal recycling rule, exposes major rubbish problem

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