New Zealand Law Society - Recycling in the office

Recycling in the office

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By Tracey Cormack

Reduce, reuse and recycle. The new three Rs might appear to be straightforward, but the “recycle” component can be confusing. For example, can a paper lunch bag go into the office paper recycling bin? Which plastics are accepted by which local council? Let’s try and simplify it.

In the office – which bin takes what waste? – reducing the “wish-cycle”

You are about to dispose of something (say a greasy pizza box or a plastic bag) but because you are unsure where it goes, you place it in the recycling bin. However, this is one of the biggest issues facing waste management today. It can create more waste because it might contaminate the whole bin, which will then need to be put in "landfill".

Stop and check before disposing of the packaging as it is sometimes difficult to work out which bin some items take, whether they are recyclable or whether they should be in the landfill bin.

For the landfill bin

Plastic bags are declined by most local councils because the bags may jam recycling sorting machines.

Tetra Pak cartons (made from paper, plastic and aluminium) – for example, juice boxes, rice or almond milk containers – are generally not accepted as only some paper recyclers can separate the components.

Metal jar lids are accepted by many councils, but others such as Christchurch, Wellington and Taranaki decline them because the lids can be too small for some of the machines to sort and they can contaminate other forms of recycling.

Batteries are not accepted because the chemicals inside them may be hazardous.

Foam trays such as those that might be under a sandwich or meat are not accepted as these trays are easily contaminated and there is little demand for used polystyrene.

Takeaway coffee cups are not accepted because paper-recycling stations can’t separate the waxy or plastic lining in them.

Recyclable items

Clean aluminium foil and aluminium cans are recyclable.

Plastic bottles: PET (recycling symbol #1) and HDPE (recycling symbol #2)) are recyclable. These are commonly milk bottles or soft drink bottles. Thermoplastics are flexible plastics that can be recycled. They are labelled from 1-7. Not all councils accept these plastics, however. Some reject types 3-7 as they are harder to recycle.

In New Zealand there are only two onshore processing plants for processing of post-consumer soft plastics: Future Post in Waiuku and Second Life Plastics in Levin. Look for collection points at selected retail stores in Auckland, Waiheke Island, Hamilton and Wellington. The bins are available at a number of Countdown, The Warehouse and Huckleberry stores. They can’t recycle compostable bags, cling film, heavy foiled bags or bags contaminated with food or liquid that cannot be easily cleaned out. Biscuit wrappers can be recycled as the foil backing is painted on and not foil backed, but dog biscuit wrappers, for example, have actual foil backing and cannot be recycled here.

The Packaging Forum collects the soft plastics for the local processors and in 2020 they will be looking at new collection points around the country, as they manage the amount of soft plastics collected with the available processing capacity. The Packaging Forum owns the Soft Plastics Recycling Scheme which is a voluntary product stewardship scheme which has received accreditation from the Government under the Waste Minimisation Act.

Cardboard and paper are recyclable but should be clean. Food scraps should be removed because if food begins to rot the paper is not good for recycling. Paper recycling is crucial for New Zealand. One tonne of paper saves 31,700 litres of water as much more is needed when using fresh wood. There are 40,000 pieces of A4 paper in one tonne. Energy is saved as the need for grinding wood into pulp is decreased and fewer trees are felled.

Organic waste: Most food waste can be composted including, for example, vegetable and fruit scraps, cooked meat scraps and coffee grounds and filters. Raw bones, raw fish, meat and oils cannot be composted and should be placed in landfill bins.

Consider a bokashi bucket for your office or workplace cafeteria as part of the recycling effort. Bokashi are home composting systems that are designed to be used indoors (technically fermenting not composting). The system comprises a bucket with a sealable lid and a tap, and a bokashi mix of fermented grains that contain micro-organisms. The tray inside the bucket separates the liquid leachate that drains off with the solid waste. They are odourless because the food is not decomposing and it doesn’t attract pests. They can deal with all types of food waste including cooked food, meat bones, citrus peels/onion skins, egg shells and dairy.

Glass: Clean unbroken glass can go in the recycling bin

How many times can material be recycled?

Every time plastic is recycled its quality is downgraded. Each time this process happens additional virgin material is added to help upgrade its quality. This means plastic can be recycled seven to nine times before it is no longer recyclable.

Glass and metal, including aluminium, can be recycled indefinitely without losing quality or purity.

Paper can be recycled four to six times as every time it is recycled the fibres shorten.

Tips to improve recycling

Separate at source – this reduces contamination. A smashed bottle will contaminate a recycling bin with paper in it even though both materials are recyclable.

Rinse recyclables – Dirty containers are less valuable and can contaminate other recyclables in the recycling process and in the bins.

Learn local recyclable procedures – Recycle NZ (see link at bottom) has put together local council recycle guides.

Learn your plastics – for example, clear hard plastics are more valuable in the recycling process that soft plastics such as cling film.

The easiest things to recycle are the products made from a single material, for example water bottles (100% PET plastic).

If you see the number 7 on a product it will be unclear whether it is recyclable or not.

Open plan recycling bins could be or might be part of your office space. These bins are labelled and come in different colours to make the process easy and help change behaviours.

A visible bin will or should help with the correct placement of waste and also reinforce accountability as when people are being watched they will tend to take more thought over their decisions and sort their waste more accurately. Open plan recycling should eliminate the need for individual desk bins and improve the effectiveness of the recycling process. Place the organic bins near the coffee machine and the paper bin near the photocopier for example.

Educate others – consider recycling education sessions, posters or find out how to educate your team – see

More information can be found at

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