Recycling Contamination: What It Is & Why It’s A Problem

When you throw something into the recycling bin instead of the trash, you may assume that the item will automatically be recycled. However, many people do not realize that some items don’t make it all the way through the recycling process to be converted into a new product. Occasionally, these items instead are taken straight to a landfill… all thanks to contamination.

Recycling contamination can happen in a number of difference scenarios. Most often, it occurs when improper materials are placed in the system or when the correct materials are contaminated from substances like food residue. Unfortunately, an entire batch of recyclables can also be considered “contaminated” if something is disposed in the wrong recycling bin. For instance, shredded paper or cardboard could be considered a contaminate if it were placed in a plastics-only bin. If it’s too hard to separate, the entire batch cannot be recycled.

To be more consumer-friendly, many recycling systems allow different materials to be combined when recycling; however, this practice can cause numerous issues when trying to complete the process properly and efficiently. For example, it can cause damage to machinery, it can diminish the quality and financial value of recycled materials and it could lead to unsafe conditions for workers. So while it is easier to throw all of the same recyclables in the same bin, it is important to remember the problems it can cause for the inner-workings of the industry. The best way to recycle effectively and prevent contamination is to be educated about which materials can be recycled and the state of which those materials should be recycled — don’t just throw anything into the bin.

Here is a list of items that cannot be recycled or are considered a contaminate, and why:

1. Food waste: Recyclables contaminated with food waste will most likely be sent straight to a landfill. You can avoid this by quickly rinsing out the materials.

2. Liquids: Empty and rinse out all containers before recycling to avoid spillage.

3. Greasy pizza boxes: The oils can’t be separated from the fibers.

4. Plastic bags: Workers have to rip open bags to sort the recyclables, which wastes time and money.

5. Shredded paper: The paper is too small to sort.

6. Heavily dyed paper: The colors can bleed into other recycled paper and will not be accepted as a final product.

7. Scrap metal: Can cause excessive damage to the recycling equipment.

8. Hazardous waste: All hazardous waste must be taken to a hazardous waste facility, not a recycling center. This includes items like paint, automotive fluids, car batteries and pesticides.

9. Syringes, needles, diapers: All are unsanitary — and potentially dangerous — materials that can’t be recycled.

10. Non-recyclable plastics: Plastic lids, styrofoam and other some other plastics are not recyclable because stable markets don’t exist for these materials. Check the number on the bottom of your plastic item to see if it is able to be recycled.

11. Flattened Containers: If flattened, the equipment might mistakenly send it to the paper side of the facility, which would contaminate the paper.

12. Ceramics, dishes, mirrors: They have different melting points and chemical compositions that could ruin new glass bottles. Entire loads of glass could be rejected if one of these non-recyclable glass items are seen in the batch.

To make single-use stream recycling effective, each consumer needs to be well informed. Always remember: recyclables belong in the bin, organics should be composted and only what’s left over should be tossed or properly disposed of if it’s hazardous. To further avoid unaccepted materials making their way into the bin in your area, check with your city or individual hauler to find out what recyclables they accept and how to prep them for pickup. To make sure the items in your bin do not become contaminated, keep all non-recyclables out of the bin, and keep any materials soiled with grease, food, or other liquids out of the bin. These steps will become second nature in time and you’ll give your materials the best chance of getting a second life. When you recycle correctly, not only are you helping your community facility, but you’re helping the planet, too.

If you want to participate correctly and are unsure while recycling, refer to these five golden rules to help solve recycling dilemmas.

Sources:

http://sustainability.umich.edu/environ211/recycling-bin-contamination

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/climate/recycling-wrong-mistakes.html

http://www.ecocycle.org/dirtydozen

https://theconversation.com/five-golden-rules-to-help-solve-your-recycling-dilemmas-65552