A video of council workers in Sydney’s southwest mixing recycling and general rubbish into the same garbage truck has sparked outrage from residents.
But the waste industry says there’s a simple reason it happens, with a simple solution — and that residents are partly to blame.
“The issue has been caused by local governments mandating unsafe work times,” Tony Khoury, executive director of the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of NSW, told news.com.au.
“And the reason they mandate unsafe work times is because they get trivial noise complaints from residents who don’t want collections to take place when it’s safest — that is 2am, 3am, 4am, those are the safest times to be collecting rubbish and recycling from those streets.”
He said in many places “they don’t allow us to start until after 7am”.
“That’s just ridiculous,” he said. “Kids are going to school, people getting appointments. It becomes a real safety issue for the driver, the runner behind the truck, members of the public.”
Earlwood mother Pia Coyle spotted Canterbury-Bankstown Council garbage workers emptying contents of the street’s yellow recycling and red garbage bins into the same truck and filmed a video, which was published by The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday.
Ms Coyle told the newspaper the council should have informed residents if it could not empty the red and yellow bins separately — and that most people would have been willing to walk their bins the short distance to the main road if it could be collected by a bigger truck.
“Recycling is very important to me, and I want my kids to learn the right thing to do,” she said.
Other residents also described witnessing the same thing.
“Why am I separating my recycling from my general waste when [the collectors] come along and mix it all up again?” one resident wrote on social media along with a photo of the same truck, the newspaper reported.
Another added that it had been “happening for ages”.
Mr Khoury told news.com.au the problem was many inner-city areas with narrow lanes and roads could only be accessed with a rear-lift truck, which only collect one rubbish type, as opposed to a side-lift truck.
“Rather than send two trucks in and double the safety risk for workers and members of the public, the work is done by one truck,” he said.
“This is not a new thing, this has been ongoing [in some councils].”
Mr Khoury, whose members own 95 per cent of the equipment used in the NSW waste industry, said if councils “allowed the safest possible time then consideration could be given to using one truck for the waste and one for the recycling”.
“But then council has to manage the noise complaints,” he said.
“I’m a bit over this — our industry doesn’t create the rubbish. We’re there to collect and transport it, but we have to do it in the safest possible way. You’ve been asked to do a job but then one hand is tied behind your back.”
Ideally, he said, all waste and recycling collection “should be allowed at the safest possible time” determined via a risk assessment, not by council setting arbitrary times based on noise complaints.
I have noted that in 2018, a grandmother died after being hit by a garbage truck in Sydney’s northern beaches.
“We’re talking about real-life, serious fatality implications if we get it wrong,” he said.
There are about 18,000 full-time, part-time and casual workers in the NSW waste industry.
Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour said in a statement to news.com.au that he shared the frustrations of some residents and had called for a full review of council’s waste operations.
“Absolutely, this is an issue I take very seriously,” he said.
“That’s why I have called on council staff to undertake a full review of our waste operations. But I want to stress that this is not happening across the city, but in a handful of hard to access streets. This is about public safety, and our larger trucks accessing narrow streets with cars parked either side.”
Mayor Asfour added that when council was made aware of the issues, staff worked with the community to address them.
“In some instances, residents asked council to install no parking signs so trucks could have proper access and in other cases, residents wheeled bins to the end of their street,” he said.
“Obviously there are still some problematic locations and if the review means changes have got to be made, I’ll move heaven and earth to sort this out.”
However, other councils that deal with narrow streets, including Inner West Council and Waverley Council, told The Sydney Morning Herald they did not have the same problem with truck size and did not mix garbage with recycling.
Suzanne Toumbourou, chief executive of the Australian Council of Recycling, said she would describe the video as “outlier behaviour” and that “I imagine, knowing the councils I engage with, they would be horrified with this approach”.
“They also would probably be horrified with what this might mean in terms of how confidently households engage with their recycling systems,” she said.
“I certainly hope it wouldn’t inform community expectations. From a recycling perspective, this is the last thing the industry wants to see.”
In 2017, a major ban by China on importing waste from other countries – allegedly for “recycling” – sent the local industry into crisis, as almost half of Australia’s metal, plastic, paper and cardboard had been shipped there.
Ms Toumbourou said Australian recycling technology had “come a long way, particularly over the last few years — we have become strong recyclers”.
“We need to support the community’s confidence in recycling outcomes,” she said.