Canterbury-Bankstown mayor says bin mixing due to ‘problematic locations’, sparking wider reflection on Australia’s waste system
A south-west Sydney mayor has called for a full review of his council’s waste operations after revelations rubbish collectors had been mixing yellow-bin recycling with red-bin garbage for more than a decade.
Residents said they had not been informed of the long-running practice, which resulted from “public safety” concerns over backing large trucks down narrow streets.
The Canterbury-Bankstown mayor, Khal Asfour, said he shared his community’s frustrations and took the issue “very seriously”, saying when council had been made aware of the issues it had worked with the public to address them.
“I want to stress that this is not happening across the city, but in a handful of hard-to-access streets,” he said.
“Obviously there are still some problematic locations … that’s why I have called on council staff to undertake a full review. If [it] means changes have got to be made, I’ll move heaven and earth to sort this out.”
The Total Environment Centre executive director, Jeff Angel, said the findings pointed to broader policy failures in Australia’s approach to recycling systems.
“The fact is the red bin already contains recyclable material,” he said.
“When councils are unable to separately collect yellow and red bins for mixing … the kerb-side collection system is not fit for purpose for the circular economy.
“Governments have spent years trying to have common colours, educate households about what to put in which bin, which frankly has its limits.”
Angel said there would “always be contamination” in separate bins which meant recyclable resources would be wasted, while suspending the outsourcing of waste to countries like China had placed Australia under increased pressure.
“We’re now having to confront sloppy practices we tolerated,” he said.
“It’s impossible to source separate once everything is mixed up … internationally we’re performing quite poorly … we’re stuck.”
Angel said unless Australia could drastically improve in separating items at their source through financial incentives like container refund schemes, the 2025 and 2030 national waste recycling targets wouldn’t be met.
Under the national action plan, introduced after the implementation of the national waste policy in 2018, Australia’s target is to reach an 80% average recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030.
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“Virtually all states failed to reach 2020 targets, and they’ve set bigger targets,” Angel said. “How on earth can we expect to get to 80% by 2030 with such an imperfect system?”
According to the latest national waste report, released in 2020, about 41% of household waste is recycled.
At the same time, Australia is failing to meet its own plastic reduction targets, with just 16% of plastic recovered despite more than half of packaging found to be easily recyclable.
The Australian Council of Recycling chief executive, Suzanne Toumbourou, said the mixing of kerb-side rubbish with recycling was a “very serious” practice that most councils would be “horrified” to see.
“You’d expect close consultation with the community,” she said. “It’s the first I’ve seen of it at least in the recent past and it sends all the wrong messages.”
The 2021 state of the environment report said the waste sector was facing “various pressures and … challenges”, exacerbated by a lack of agreed mandatory standards for recycled content and disparity in regional areas.
But Toumbourou said while there would “always be” outlier behaviour, the recycling sector was “going strong” and had been drastically modernised since the adoption of the national waste policy.
“While we might see images like this that can really undermine our confidence, as a standard around the country our home kerb-side collections do make their way to material recovery centres,” she said.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said much of what was considered “waste” was actually a valuable resource, but was disposed of or collected incorrectly.
“Governments, industry and communities must come together and build a true circular economy where waste no longer exists,” he said.