Where does your recycling go?

The Age (Melbourne) Magazine

IN ONE SMOOTH MOVEMENT, the recycling truck empties five tonnes of plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, newspapers, aluminium cans and steel tins into a heap on the concrete. Amid the faint smell of supermarket dumpsters and the sound of shattering stubbies, a grotty yellow Caterpillar loader shoves the pile onto a towering six-metre-high garbage dune.

We’re at the Visy Materials Recovery Facility in Heidelberg, the first point of call for empty Coke cans and crusty pizza boxes from some 400,000 households, most of them in the inner north-east.

In the ’80s and ’90s, residents sorted recyclables by hand but these days machines do the icky work for you. This particular facility processes material at a rate of 30 tonnes per hour. As we stand beneath a 300‑tonne recyclable mountain, it’s astonishing to think all this stuff will be gone by the end of the day.

The first part of the process is to remove the things that shouldn’t have been in your recycling bin in the first place (oops). “Carcasses or organic products, nappies, colostomy bags – we’ve had them all,” says Wayne Russell, Visy’s general manager for Victoria. “It’s a lucky dip.” Four years ago, site manager Vu Huynh was surprised to see a handgun on the conveyor belt. (He turned it in to police.)

After this sorting, your recycling enters a trommel, an 11-metre-long, three-metre-wide rotating cylinder that resembles a massive clothes dryer. Aluminium cans, plastic bottles and mashed-up newspapers tumble around the huge chamber, the centrifugal force making them stick to the inner wall, which is pierced with holes to suck in round, heavy objects (papery things float past unhindered).

From there, last week’s throwaways enter a labyrinth of 80-odd conveyor belts connecting more than 25 machines. A vibrating conveyor belt bounces your junk mail upwards while knocking your rancid yoghurt tubs downwards, an overhead electro-magnet attracts your steel tomato tins and an eddy current separator repels your crushed soda cans so they leap into the air. It’s a dazzling display of pantry acrobatics, underscored by the tinkling of shattering glass and the hollow thuds of objects flung down metal chutes.

After barely 10 minutes, the show’s over. Your plastic bottles go to a Visy facility in Springvale. Most of your dog-eared magazines are sent to a paper mill in Campbellfield or Reservoir. Your steel tins end up in Dandenong and your glass is trucked to Laverton. And what about your forehead-crushed beer cans? An all-expenses-paid, one-way trip to Korea.