News | 21 September 2021

Dirty nappies, food and fish found among recycling

You may expect to find dirty nappies, food scraps, and rusted oven trays in rubbish bags, but surely not in with recycling. Yet, these are among the items the team at recycling centre Oji Fibre Solutions discover on their conveyer belts regularly.

A large steeply-angled tray filled with recycling bottles, containers and other recyclable materials, feeding onto a blue metal conveyor belt, in a large warehouse with clear light panels on the roof.

Oji, based in Seaview, process about 135 tonnes of recycling collected from Wellington, Hutt, Porirua, and Kapiti Coast each day. About 40 tonnes of this daily total comes from Wellington City Council’s area.

The recycling materials are sorted by both machine and hand, with General Manager of Tyke Recycling and Contracting Limited Brendan Walker saying about eight tonnes of contaminated recycling is transferred to the landfill every day.

“Nappies we come across daily, hourly even. Bags of dog poo are not recyclable, but we find them from time to time. Once we had a whole fish, about a metre long, we couldn’t believe it.”

Brendan (pictured below), who is subcontracted by Oji, says dealing with these items is unpleasant for staff, and many unrecyclable objects can cause problems with the production line.

“We have 24 people on site making sure everything that comes in can be sorted as fast as possible. The goal is to get deliveries in and sorted quickly as in the evening we can have 20 trucks arriving in 25 minutes.

“We get a lot of clothing, kettle cords, hose pipes and commercial box strapping, all of which can wrap around the machines and cause them to stop.”

A man wearing overalls with bright blue pants and orange top, standing in front of a large pile of glass bottles sitting about a metre high, in-between a wall made of cinderblocks that's about five metres wide.

A break-down caused by these items delays production by about 20-minutes – the time it takes to sort through more than two tonnes of recycling.

“That’s 2.5 tonnes of productivity lost for something as silly as an oven rack.”

Other contamination items include medical waste, garden waste, food products, tv aerials, and occasionally LPG bottles, which pose a massive safety risk to staff.

Oji typically receive and sort 47,500 aluminium cans each day, 50 tonnes of cardboard and 34,000 milk bottles. Oji also receives about 18 tonnes of glass daily.

And the plant’s new optical sorter that identifies meat trays is estimated to divert around 27,000 clear PET trays from ending up in landfill every day.

With 69 conveyor belts, baling machines, front-end loaders on the move, strict health and safety measures, and noise and dust all around, it’s a busy worksite.

Brendan says official Council recycling bags are dropped into a chute and torn open by a machine. Their contents are emptied onto a conveyor belt, with staff setting aside the cardboard by hand.

“It’s big and bulky and the sooner you get it out of the way the faster you can get into sorting other things. The conveyor gets through 100kg a minute.”

Items are then fed onto another machine which flicks flat items upwards and onto another conveyor belt, while plastics and other containers drop down and are belted to a sorting machine.

“The team are working to pick off any unrecyclable material and any waste items – jandals, kid’s toys, nappies is a classic, corn on the cob – it’s our goal to have no contamination!

“We want to get that out of the way before we put it on the optical sorter – we just want good pieces of plastic coming through there.”

The optical sorter processes 600 items per minute across four lanes. Objects are then arranged by machine into single file and flicked off into the correct cage containing like items, such as milk bottles, tins, cans, and various plastic containers.

Brendan explains it’s best that people do not flatten aluminium cans or plastic milk bottles, otherwise they may be sorted in with the carboard and paper, contaminating this material.

A blue conveyor belt belting plastic bottles and containers upwards, with a yellow and grey metal staircase to the right, and bales of recyclable materials being prepared below.

Also, it is important people take the lids off their plastic bottles as these are made of a different plastic. Tops should also be removed from glass bottles. Tops and lids can be taken to the Recycling Centre at the Southern Landfill, or the Sustainability Trust for recycling.

Wellington City Council Waste Operations Manager Emily Taylor-Hall says there is a concerted effort to ensure that as much kerbside recycling as possible is recycled in New Zealand. For Wellington, this is about 90 percent.

She says Wellingtonians are passionate recyclers and are generally good at it.

Now that recycling is back in full operation following the lockdown, Emily says it’s a timely reminder that we all ensure we are preparing our recycling correctly.

“If we can be mindful when sorting our recycling, we can minimise how much ends up in the landfill and make the job easier for the hard-working team at Oji. It’s a win-win.”