Many people have been reusing their supermarket plastic bags as household rubbish bin liners, but with bag bans upon us (yes!), many are scratching their heads about what to use instead. A popular piece of advice has been to line your bin with newspaper instead, as was done in times gone by.
You might think I’d be supportive of this, and I am to some extent, but I think many people are a little confused about some aspects of this plastic free swap. So, here’s why I’m asking you to consider not lining your bin with newspaper.
Australia is one of the biggest recyclers of newspaper in the world. We recycle around 74% of all newspapers and therefore prevent tonnes of landfill from accumulating. By recycling a one metre stack of newspaper we save the equivalent of a 12 metre tree. If everyone started using newspaper to line their rubbish bins and threw this into the garbage with the rest of the material, it would remove valuable newspaper from the recycling stream, adding pressure on virgin forestry resources as well as using more energy and water to manufacture, than by using recycled paper. It would also replace the volume of landfill that would otherwise have been removed by taking the plastic bags away.
Now, something that I still often hear or read is a comment like this, “At least newspaper will biodegrade faster than plastic in landfill”. Unfortunately, any kind of bin liner does not break down well in modern, highly compacted landfills (including compostable plastic bags), and we don’t actually know conclusively how long plastic takes to break down to compare this. To highlight the lack of biodegradation, archaeological digs of landfills have found newspaper and food perfectly preserved together after 25 years!
The reason biodegradable things don’t biodegrade in landfill is because landfill is so tightly packed (to get as much rubbish in as possible) and that creates an environment without oxygen, dirt, water, and microorganisms. Even if newspaper and other biodegradable material did manage to break down, the anaerobic conditions leads to methane production and methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Taking newspaper out of the recycling stream to go into landfill is definitely not ideal, but I’m not advocating a return to plastic bin liners. I’m just asking that people don’t line their entire bin with newspaper and send this to landfill.
Ideally, I would like to see people ensure newspaper and other paper is recycled and that they don’t line their bins at all. A lot of people don’t by hardcopy newspapers anymore anyway. The fact is you don’t actually need to have a bin liner in order to put your rubbish out, as many Councils have removed the rule that waste must be bagged-up in the landfill bin. Make sure you check with your council.
The first thing you should do to avoid the bin liner is look at what shouldn’t be in your landfill bin. Any food or compostable items should go in the home compost or worm farm or a council collection service if available, and recyclables should go in the recycling. There will barely be anything left to go to landfill after this and it should nearly all be dry. For more in-depth detail on how to go without a bin liner, read my previous post Why You Don’t Need A Plastic Bin Liner. Also, keep in mind the need to reduce the amount of waste produced in the household in general. Try reading this next to get you started: What Does Your Garbage Reveal About You?
If you find you need to occasionally rinse your kitchen and kerbside bins, do it in conjunction with watering your garden or pot plants, or empty it on the grass, to keep water use minimal.
For people living in apartments who are concerned about not being able to compost, many councils now run composting schemes for food scraps. To find out if your apartment has a food waste composting scheme, contact your council or go to RecyclingNearYou.com.au and type in your postcode. You can also try platforms like ShareWaste which match people with scraps, with people with composting systems in nearby neighbourhoods.
If compost isn’t available, then you might want to try wrapping your scraps in a sheet of newspaper prior to disposal, but if possible, use sheets that already can’t be recycled because they are grease-stained, for example. Or you could use some other sort of packaging at home that would already be going to landfill – again try not to take things from recycling streams and put them in landfill.
If you are using newspaper to line a bin and composting it, that’s better than the paper going to landfill but not as good for the environment as recycling the paper and going without a liner in the bin. This post explains why recycling paper is better than composting it pretty well.
At the end of the day, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Going without a bin liner works well for me, but some families and individuals may not be ready for such a big change, and stepping stones like lining the bin with newspaper will help.
Hopefully the information I have provided has helped you make an informed decision about what is right for you.