The Recycling Collector: ‘Some loads are so bad, and so mixed up, that they can’t be sorted … It becomes landfill'

Ben* has worked in the waste industry for 11 years – first as a garbo and now as a recycling collector in inner-Melbourne. He spoke with Sophie Quick about stenches, overstuffing, and why China and India have stopped taking our recycling.

Looping animation of falling drink cans

Animation: Jon Tjhia

When did you start out in the waste industry?

I started in 2008. I’ve done all sorts: garbage, hard waste, recycling. I’ve been a runner and now I do recycling – driving a truck.

What’s your schedule?

I’m up at 4.55am. I get to work, clock on, and my payday starts from 5.50am. I start picking up bins from 6.30am, and I stop when I’ve picked up all the bins on my route. It takes as long as it takes. It might take me twelve hours, it might take me eight or eleven hours. Same route every Monday, same every Tuesday and so on.

Can you remember your first day, collecting rubbish? What were your expectations?

Nappies. Stop putting nappies in recycling bins. Come on. Don’t do it.

I don’t think I had any particular expectations, I just went into it. Even though I’m thinking, ‘this is not for me’, I pushed through it, I got used to the smell. And now I’ve been in the industry for eleven years and wouldn’t change a thing, really.

How hard was it to push through the smell at first?

I think for most people, it’s pretty hard. Whether you’re using a lift or doing the bins by hand, the bins are gonna smell. Or in the hopper, or in the bowl. You’ve got bin juice, and other stuff – that’s just part of the job. If I went back to running now – I would have to get used to the smell again. Now I’m driving, but I still get the smell from the hopper. Recycling has its own smell – wet cardboard and that.

Are there particular places on your route – particular houses or buildings – that you dread passing every single week because their bins are always disgusting?

There are certain areas where you have junkies going through a lot of bins, so sometimes you’ll find a lot of bins knocked over or a bit of a mess. Also around nightclubs and stuff. I pick up in areas where some restaurants don’t sort out their recycling properly, they’ve got garbage in their recycling bins, food that’s been sitting there for a week and it’s all sticky. Pretty bad.

Have household garbage and recycling habits improved during the time you’ve been in the industry?

It’s bad and it’s probably not getting much better. Some people are getting the idea – about how to sort their rubbish and recycling – but the ones who don’t care just wreck it for everyone else. When you’re picking up – you might get to an area that’s a slum area – and they’ll just mix their stuff up and they don’t care. But other times when you go to poorer areas, you’ll find that people really do try and they do care. Same goes for rich areas: there are people who really try and there are people who don’t give a shit. There’s no discrimination in that – it just comes down to the individual. I sometimes find nappies in recycling bins. I can’t control it – the sorters [at the plant] will have to sort it out. Often, by the time I see it going in, it’s pretty much too late anyway.

Sometimes I go past places where they’re doing renovations and there will be plaster dust, sawdust, brick dust – that’s coming out of the hopper, all in dust, and I’ve gotta breathe all that in! That’s not fair on me. Get a skip!

Some loads are so bad, and so mixed up, that they can’t be sorted. It messes up the conveyor belts at the plant, so it just gets cubed up and it ends up as landfill. And if nobody wants to buy the recycled product, the [waste management companies] just stockpile it. It just sits there. What are they supposed to do with it? I do feel a bit sorry for them, but these are big companies, and they can try to do better. If they’re getting business from the EPA and they’re not meeting requirements, and if China is no longer buying our recycling – then something has to change. Things have to change with what happens with our waste, and how it can be reused. They’re building roads with bottles and plastics out in Broadmeadows. We need to support that kind of thing. It has to start at home but when it gets to the sorting plants, we can also do better, I think.

Animated parade of black garbage bags, scrolling across the screen

What questions do people always ask you when you tell them about your work?

I’ve got a couple of extra boxes. Can I put them in your truck?’ I try to be helpful; I usually say yes.

Do you ever go inside the recycling plant to see the sorting?

I see it from the truck but I don’t really go in there. I’ve never done sorting and I wouldn’t do it, because I know what’s going in and what’s coming out of the trucks.

Does your work affect your politics?

Every government promises this or that and what they deliver is something different. I care what happens to the planet but politics is not that big for me. I believe things need to change, though, in the way we deal with our waste and in thinking of new ways to reuse the stuff from our households. Governments need to support that.

Is it consumers’ fault that China doesn’t want to take our recycling anymore?

Maybe, yeah, because what they’re being sent is not a quality product. And maybe there’s not a lot they can do with it. Education is really important but there’s only so many times you can talk to a brick wall. And you’ll get more sense out of a brick wall than you will with some people. It's not just households that need to change.

Do you get the sense that people appreciate the work you do?

You’re always going to get the people who are unhappy because you’ve woken them up too early or drivers who are impatient because they’re stuck behind you. But I try to be as courteous as I can and I do get positive feedback from residents sometimes. It’s not a big thing for me, it’s not what I’m about, but I appreciate it.

What's the most terrible thing you've seen during your time in the industry?

Driving around the streets all the time, you see what happens with the homeless – how they get moved on. It's not good.

If you could ask Australian households to stop doing one thing with their recycling, what would it be?

Nappies. Stop putting nappies in recycling bins. Come on. Don’t do it. And there’s just too much stuff generally in the wrong bins. And don’t overstuff your bins! It just makes a huge mess.

 

* Not his real name

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