Victoria Police's bid to recycle 20 tonnes of breathalyser straws

8/1/18 Environmental activist Elana Rubenstein is on a mission to help Victoria Police recycle the four million breathalyser straws they use each year. Photograph by Chris Hopkins
8/1/18 Environmental activist Elana Rubenstein is on a mission to help Victoria Police recycle the four million breathalyser straws they use each year. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

In April 2016, Elana Rubenstein was pulled over by Victoria Police and breathalysed.

She recorded a zero alcohol reading, but that moment was the start of a colossal mission: saving four million plastic straws - weighing 20 tonnes - from landfill in Victoria each year.

"After I did the breath test I asked the policewoman what happens to the straws, do they go into recycling?" Ms Rubenstein, an environmental activist, said.

"She told me they just go in the bin, but she said if I contacted Victoria Police through their website someone would get in touch with me - and they did."

Ms Rubenstein said Victoria Police were keen to recycle the breathalyser straws, but had been hitting logistical walls.

"The problem is the straws all come in paper wrappers and most recycling plants can only deal with them if they are separated.

"The police have a really important job to do and they just didn't have the resources to be separating the straws and wrappers at each booze bus."

The other problem facing Ms Rubenstein and Victoria Police was that the used straws were designated as biomedical waste.

It took some doing but Ms Rubenstein finally persuaded Environment Protection Authority Victoria that used straws contained no chemicals or blood and therefore did not have to be classified as hazardous.

Victoria Police breath test device. 010711AS46 Picture: AARON SAWALL

Victoria Police breath test device. 010711AS46 Picture: AARON SAWALL

Collecting and moving the straws was also an issue. "There's no point creating more emissions in delivery than you save," Ms Rubenstein said.

Of the four million straws used each year, one million are returned to Brunswick Police Station, but the other three million are scattered around the state.

With some assistance from Pact Group founder Raphael Geminder, Ms Rubenstein managed to convince Melbourne recycling firm Astron to undertake a trial with 40 bags of 600 mingled straws and wrappers.

The October trial of about 120 kilos of straws was a success and all the contents of the bags were melted into resin pellets beofore being manufactured into cable covers.

"I've seen a lot of people have these types of ideas, but not many have had the persistence and energy to follow them all the way through. Elana has definitely got that," Pact Group's general manager of sustainability Andrew Smith said.

But Mr Smith warned the straws were low volume, and while recycleable, would need to overcome "inherent inefficiences" such as being scattered around the state.

"Everything is recyclable. It just depends how much effort and resources you want to put into it," he said.

"It's going to take some commitment from Victoria Police's end to consolidate and transport the straws effectively without contamination. That will make the recycling process simpler and gives it a chance to be sustainable.

"It can recycled, but if this material turns up with pizza boxes and half-eaten pizza and gloves it's going to end in tears."

The Victoria Police waste management contracts will expire in March this year, providing an opportunity for further development of concepts for recycling breathalyser straws.

Victoria Police have also expressed interest in recycling them into money boxes for Blue Ribbon Appeals or other forms of community policing items.

Superintendent John Fitzpatrick said officers from the road policing drug and alcohol section were proud to take part in the trial.

"We know this is an important issue and we are committed to doing our part to help the environment," he said.

WA Police won a state government award in 2017 for a similar project, which removed almost one million straws from landfill and turned them into rubbish bins.

It had the additional benefit of providing cost savings for WA Police because recycling collection costs were less than waste collection costs for landfill.

Ms Rubenstein said she was committed to finding a viable industrial solution to ensure millions of straws each year never reach landfill.

This story Victoria Police's bid to recycle 20 tonnes of breathalyser straws first appeared on Magnet.

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