How to skip the too-hard basket and recycle Australia’s most challenging household items

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When it comes time to ditch items that can’t go in the council kerbside recycling bin – an old mattress, say, or your running shoes – don’t throw them in the too-hard basket.

Only 42.1% of Australian household waste is recycled, according to the latest national waste report, yet many binned things could be sent to alternative recycling systems.

Jenny Geddes, Clean Up Australia chief executive, says harder-to-recycle items often require extra steps or running around from consumers because a hodgepodge of recycling systems operate across different municipalities.

“It’s challenging, but it’s incredible what actually can be recycled once you look into it,” Geddes says. “And when you toss something into your red bin because it’s too difficult, that resource is gone for ever.”

Here are tips for recycling some of the most challenging household items.

Worn-out sports shoes can be dropped at one of TreadLightly’s 800 collection sites nationally, for recycling on-shore into new products, such as rubber flooring, shock pads and playground underlays. Or, if your shoes still have a little life left, try donating to Shoes for Planet Earth.

Clothing is a huge landfill contributor – 100,000 tonnes of clothing go straight to the tip each year – but Geddes urged consumers to avoid ‘wish-cycling’: dumping old, unusable items on to charities, which then bear the cost of landfill disposal.

Clothing retailers H&M and Zara will take textiles in any condition for reuse or recycling. Or box up worn-out clothing, bras, shoes, bathers, linen and even mattress protectors and couch covers for Upparel – you will need to pay $35 for each 10kg of textiles sent for recycling.

Good-condition spectacles and sunglasses can be donated to Lions Clubs’ Recycle for Sight, although broken glasses must go into landfill.

Steel springs and polyurethane foam can be recovered from old mattresses for reuse, which helps reduce the bulk of leftover materials dumped into landfill. The Australian Bedding Stewardship Council has approved six recycling bodies that collect unwanted mattresses for under $100 in most states and territories.

Nonstick cookware won’t be accepted by recycling plants unless stripped of their coating – so best to buy longer-lasting wrought-iron, cast-iron or stainless steel pans, which can be recycled via initiatives such as the Great Pan Exchange and Tefal’s Act Together program.

Related: ‘People see rubbish, but I see money’: the professional recyclers cashing in on Australia’s bottles and cans

An estimated 200,000 child car seats are binned each year, even though 80% of their components are recyclable. Car seats have been listed on climate change minister Chris Bowen’s priority list since 2020, but last year’s recycling trial conducted with manufacturers and retailers was not rolled out nationally as foreshadowed. For now, check with local councils and car seat suppliers – and even the RAA motoring body in South Australia – as some offer recycling for a small fee.

Since the REDcycle soft plastics recycling scheme collapsed last November, governments and major supermarkets have scrambled to find an alternative. Limited kerbside soft plastics collection trials are now under way in six local government areas across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia via the Curby initiative. Petstock has also started collecting wet and dry pet food plastic bags and pouches.

But for most Australians, landfill is now the only option for soft plastics – so ‘refusing to use’ by choosing ‘nude’ produce and un packaged items is more important than ever.

Officeworks collects pens and markers, computers, mobile phones, printer cartridges and even old USBs and hard drives. Batteries – which leak toxic chemicals when dumped into landfill – can be dropped at B-cycle collection points nationwide.

Other hard-to-recycle bathroom and household packaging items, such as medical blister packs, toothpaste tubes, electric toothbrush heads, mascara tubes, plastic razors, coffee pods and plastic bread tags can be recycled via Banish – which charges $15 per box of items.

For a free option, check if your local council is funding RecycleSmart, which collects bags of hard-to-recycle things such as soft plastics, clothing, e-waste and polystyrene from your doorstep.

Karen Murphy, who co-runs the popular Refuse Reduce Reuse Recycle in Adelaide Facebook group, says expanding government and corporate-funded collection services is key to upping Australia’s household recycling rates. “There is currently too much onus on the consumer. It’s too hard and too time-consuming for most,” she says. “The lack of consistency across Australia makes people frustrated.”

Murphy says consumers need to remember kerbside collection systems are for a specific set of recyclables – usually paper, aluminium, steel, cardboard, glass and rigid plastics – rather than “anything and everything that can be recycled”.

Beyond those basics, a little research will probably be needed to see if an alternative recycling option exists near you.

The free Recycle Mate app, developed by the Australian Council of Recycling, allows you to upload a photo of your item for AI to crosscheck against more than 4,000 products, before suggesting local recycling options. Planet Ark’s Recycling Near You website also contains a useful recyclable products directory and postcode searcher.

Solutions often exist at a hyper-local level, too, facilitated by local governments, community groups or passionate volunteers. Call your council or community centre to find out what’s operating in your neighbourhood.

If you’re still in doubt after researching your item, it’s best placed in the red landfill bin, says Geddes. “Putting the wrong item into kerbside recycling could contaminate a whole truck – and then the whole truck ends up going into landfill,” she says. “But there are a lot of different [recycling] options now. So do take that extra step to think: ‘How can we give this resource another life?'”

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