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Recycling Feels so Right, but we’re Doing it Wrong

Recycling contamination is all over the news these days, but what is it really, and why is it so bad?

Photo: Rawpixel

What recycling contamination looks like

That peanut butter jar you tried to clean, but still has a little bit left at the bottom? It’s trash.

Recycling contamination is expensive

In Phoenix, plastic bags in recycling bins raise costs by $1 million every year.

Since China’s new rules took effect, one Oregon facility has had to bring all of its recycling to the landfill.

  1. Identify what you’re “wish-cycling”
    Pritchard mentioned hard-cover books, latex gloves, styrofoam, shoes, grocery bags, clothing, paper towels, and yard waste as problematic items people have put into a recycling bin. According to the New York Times, common food-contaminated items include coffee cups, pizza boxes, takeout containers, and yogurt cups (which also often contain plastic that isn’t recyclable at many facilities).
  2. Read your city’s recycling handbook
    “If it’s not recyclable in your area, it’s not recyclable,” Pritchard says. “In some parts of the world you can recycle glass, in other parts of the world it’s a huge problem.” The recycling symbol — three arrows in a triangle — on many plastic products can also be less than helpful, since certain types of plastic aren’t recyclable in every area. If you can’t recycle it in your area, you need to put it in the trash. “Follow the rules in your area,” she says.
    (West Coast readers, we did legwork for some of you: here’s a link to Portland’s recycling rules and Seattle’s flyer on recycling. San Francisco has an interactive guide to their extensive recycling and composting options. The City of Vancouver has a handy tool where you can type in an item to see if it’s recyclable, and Victoria has on online “Recyclopedia.”)
  3. Keep recyclables empty, clean and dry
    Once you’ve got a handle on what’s recyclable in your area, the most important thing you can do is make sure you’re keeping quality goods in recycling condition. “Keeping things empty, clean, and dry is the best thing that you can do to have valuable recycling, and to keep recycling valuable,” Pritchard says. “If you see a [recycling bin] lid up, either close it yourself or ask the business owner to make sure the lid is closed.”

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