COVID-19 pandemic exposes flaw in Christchurch recycling system

Comingled recycling systems, where all the recyclables are collected together in one wheelie bin, leads to more contamination and higher sorting costs.

Christchurch City Council’s decision to ask residents not to stockpile recyclables and send it to landfill is a result of the wasteful collection method used, says the Glass Packaging Forum (GPF).

The GPF, which runs the country’s only glass bottle and jar product stewardship scheme, was reacting to the council’s announcement yesterday (16 April) that residents should not stockpile their recyclables until recycling could resume. According to the council this was because recycling machinery and kerbside collection wouldn’t be able to cope with the increased volume when normal service resumed.

GPF Scheme Manager Dominic Salmon says while he sympathises with the council’s current situation, it shows a clear flaw in the comingled collection system used in the region. Comingling sees all recyclables collected together in one wheelie bin – rather than the best practice of separating recyclables – which leads to more contamination and higher sorting costs. This in turn makes recycling less economically viable, he says.

“Christchurch’s glass goes into roading rather than being recycled into new bottles, and while this is obviously not the best outcome it’s better than sending this valuable resource to landfill. Glass doesn’t break down in landfill.”

Christchurch and Banks Peninsula recycling has been sent to landfill since the beginning of April due to the temporary closure of the materials recovery centre run by council-run EcoCentral. The Ministry for the Environment had declared recycling an essential service during the COVID-19 lockdown, but left the decision to operate to councils and contractors.

Dominic says other councils are working with their contractors on solutions to ensure the safe recovery of glass during all COVID-19 alert levels. “I urge Christchurch City Council to do the same, and in the long term to explore options for moving away from comingled collections, which will make recycling the glass viable.”

Adele Rose, Chief Executive at 3R Group which specialises in product stewardship and manages the GPF, says the indication from Government is a strong focus on the domestic economy following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This provides both local government and business with an opportunity to become more self-reliant, resilient, and to work on developing circular economy solutions. Recycled glass is an excellent example of the circular economy in action as it’s infinitely recyclable in New Zealand.”

Christchurch is home to the South Island’s main glass aggregation hub – at 5R Solutions. This makes it more viable to freight recycled glass in bulk to the country’s only glass bottle manufacturer O-I New Zealand, in Auckland, Dominic says.

“The solution is available to maximise the amount of glass being recycled, we just need to improve the collection method,” he says.

Using recycled glass to make new glass bottles and jars reduces the need for virgin material – in fact, 1kg of recycled glass replaces 1.2kg of virgin materials.  It also means the furnaces can run at a lower temperature so there are less emissions, Dominic says.  According to the latest information from O-I NZ, every 10 percent of recycled glass content reduces emissions by 5 percent and generates energy savings of approximately 3 percent. 

“A great little statistic we’d love people to keep in mind when doing their recycling is that the energy saved by recycling a single bottle could light a 15-watt low-energy light bulb for 24 hours,” Dominic says.