Recycling buyers losing patience
On your way to work you stop and grab a takeaway coffee.
A few minutes later, you make the point of putting it in the recycling bin, secure in the knowledge you've done your bit for global warming today.
A few hours later, a recycling collection truck comes by and ferries the recycling bin contents to a sorting plant.
Diligent and nimble-fingered staff grab your takeaway cup off the conveyor belt and throw it into the rubbish pile headed for landfill.
Contrary to popular belief, cardboard takeaway coffee cups are no longer being recycled. Neither are plastic bottle caps, supermarket shopping bags, pizza boxes or beer boxes.
New Zealand is reliant on the custom of foreign recycling companies which set the standards, and they are getting fussy.
New Zealand has no recycling facilities.
There are plenty of collecting and sorting depots, but none can actually recycle the material they collect. Instead, Kiwi companies sort and grade items.
Companies from China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam then tender for a shipment of a certain grade of paper, plastic or aluminium.
Bales are stacked into shipping containers and sent overseas, where they are eventually recycled.
Mastagard is the South Island's largest independently-owned recycling and waste collection company.
Quality assurance and shipping manager Dave Oberholzer said the recycling industry was changing.
In the past five months, he has had to slowly start excluding items like takeaway coffee cups from his recycling operation.
Dirty, contaminated or poorly sorted shipments are no longer tolerated.
The more work foreign buyers have to do at their end to clean and process Kiwi recycling shipments, the lower the price they will pay. Some will not accept certain grades at all.
Oberholzer said if a centrally-located recycling facility was set up in New Zealand, it would be well used. It would stop the recycling industry from being dictated by foreign companies and would cost less for local companies.
Shipments sent overseas are also dependent on the shipping industry for low rates.
Waste material is at the bottom of the list for shipping companies. Companies like Mastagard often end up paying a premium for container space.
Oberholzer said some Christchurch companies could no longer trade with China, which controlled the market, because of high contamination rates in shipments.
Clean, well-sorted, high-grade shipments fetch the best price, and contractors in New Zealand are taking less of the cost burden themselves.
The list of what cannot be recycled is growing all the time.
Supermarket shopping bags get wrapped around machinery and despite being advertised as biodegradable, are still sitting in landfills 10 years later.
Oberholzer said those using supermarket bags to separate their recycling were creating more work for sorters when the line had to be stopped to rip apart bags and unclog machinery.
Takeaway coffee cups are virtually worthless.
Designed to hold hot liquid, they are coated with a compound which prevents the cardboard from collapsing when filled with coffee. But the water-resistant compound also means the cups are almost impossible to pulp and recycle.
Similar compounds are applied to beer boxes, frozen food boxes, and anything else going into the fridge or freezer. Some can be sold to foreign companies for different uses, but at a much lower rate.
Oberholzer said sending waste to landfill costs four times more than recycling. However, the more work involved in sorting recycling at his end, the lower the profit when the shipment was sold.
The Christchurch City Council recycling collection and processing cost $7.8 million in the 2013-2014 year.
WHAT WE CAN'T RECYCLE
1. Plastic supermarket bags: Supermarket bags get caught in machinery. They are not worth much to recyclers and do not biodegrade in a reasonable timeframe.
2. Cardboard boxes used in fridges or freezers (e.g. beer boxes): Any boxes being put in the fridge or freezer will get wet. Therefore they are chemically treated to resist moisture, and are very difficult to pulp and recycle.
3. Takeaway coffee cups: Often contaminated with food, milk etc. Coated with a heat and moisture-resistant coating which does not pulp for recycling.
4. Lids from plastic bottles: A different plastic is used than the bottles which is not easily recyclable.
A tonne of product difficult to recycle is worth less to the recycling buyer, but takes the same energy to sort and ship.
It costs recycling collectors like Mastagard about $400 to send a tonne of waste to landfill.
It costs about $100 to send a tonne of recycling overseas, plus shipping costs. But recycling collectors will be paid for the product, keeping overall costs lower.