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Brisbane to Beijing and back: journey of a discarded milk container

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Brisbane, are you putting out the rubbish tonight?

If you are, consider the future of what you shove into your wheelie bin because people want to generate new jobs from this routine activity.

That empty milk container that your daughter put into the bin after using it on her cereal this morning, will tonight go into the recycling bin, then be collected by the rubbish collectors and be taken to Visy's Recycling Plant at Murarrie.

Brisbane City Council is Visy's largest client, with the company securing a contract to recycle the council's waste.

The plastic milk bottle will join the cardboard that wrapped around the new iron you bought on Sunday and the plastic that wrapped around the juice containers you bought last Thursday.

The plastic milk container will be sorted from the non-recyclable rubbish and within the space of a few minutes, isolated and compressed into a bale of recyclable plastic.


More than 32 tonnes of rubbish are sorted each hour.

From Visy's Murarrie plant, the plastic will be exported to China and returned to Australia as a pair of plastic sandals with "Made in China" stamped on the bottom.

In one sense, these bales of recycled plastic are an early glimpse of a futuristic version of the bales of wool that underpinned Australia's growth during the wool boom from the 1940s to 1960s.

In the three months from January 1 to March 31, 2012, there has been more than 22,477 tonnes of recycled rubbish collected from Brisbane homes.

More than 51 per cent of this recycled waste - 11,575.66 tonnes - is cardboard or paper.

More than 30 per cent - 6855 tonnes - is glass.

About half a per cent of it – or 123 tonnes - is aluminium from cans, while 1.5 per cent or 337 tonnes is steel.

Slightly more than 2 per cent or 449.54 tonnes is what Visy calls "mixed plastics".

Another 2.5 per cent is a harder form of plastic called HDPE, or "high density polyethylene" which includes milk containers, juice containers and yoghurt containers.

Yet another 2.5 per cent of the recycled rubbish is a softer form of plastic container - PET or poly terephthalate - which covers things like soft drink bottles, water bottles, salad dressings and household cleaners.

And this is the type of plastic coveted by shoe manufacturers.

But other manufacturers have their eyes on plastic.

Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) can be used to make fibre for polyester carpets.

It is used in athletes' shoes, luggage, upholstery and sweaters, fibrefill for sleeping bags and winter coats.

According to the RMIT, Brisbane residents have over the past three months saved 13,652 tonnes of solid waste that would normally go to landfill.

We saved 11,922 tonnes of carbon emissions, the equivalent of taking 2866 cars off the road.

That equates to the annual electricity used in 14,300 homes, according to RMIT's Centre for Design.

And the processing saves enough water to fill 160 Olympic swimming pools.

There are also jobs to be created at the downstream in the recycling industry.

With this in mind, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk announced yesterday he would spend $4 million over the next four years to re-shape the entrances to Brisbane dumps.

If he was re-elected, it would soon be free to dump anything that can be recycled.

Brisbane residents were already lifting their recycling efforts.

“The important point here is that it [waste that can be recycled] has gone from 79,000 tonnes in the 2009-10 financial year to now being 91,000 tonnes,” he said.

“And that is expected to grow to around 100,000 tonnes in the next year.”

Visy's Queensland sales manager Tony Darcy said China was Queensland's biggest export market for recyclables.

"We export paper, white paper, cardboard, plastics - HDPE, PET and mixed plastics in those bales to China,” Mr Darcy said.

“Our business is growing at around two to three per cent a year, but the (paper) mill gets about 15,000 tonnes a month, which goes to recycled paper.”

Not all the recycled material, the baled paper and the baled plastics, in Visy's backyard at Murarrie was exported, he said.

However some of the recycled material was stockpiled to fill the paper mill's future requirements.

Of the 15,000 tonnes a month that was needed for the paper mill, about 3000 tonnes a month came from Brisbane City Council wheelie bins.

“Brisbane City Council [and its householders] would contribute three to four thousand tonnes a month to the 15,000 tonnes a month that we need for the paper mill,” Mr Darcy said.

So when you throw your milk container into the recycling bin, be real.

It might be back within six months as netball shoes for your kids.