Zero Waste

Is Your Recycling Contaminated?

January 14, 2021

Is your recycling contaminated?

Most of us are aware that a banana peel is thrown into the green bin and paper, metal, and plastic can be thrown into the blue one, but unfortunately proper recycling is not this simple. Contamination of waste is a serious problem that causes 25% of our recycling to end up in landfills. Being precise about how and where we dispose of our waste can help reduce contamination. This is a straightforward fact and most people acknowledge that when they dispose improperly, it can have both environmental and economic consequences on a global scale. For instance, the recent closure of 284 rePlanet recycling centers was partially due to the contamination crisis and China’s ban on our contaminated recycling. Additionally, even those who are educated on what is recyclable may still have difficulty avoiding contamination due to the recycling process that we use.

What exactly is contamination? This is a broad question that has many specific answers. In the simplest sense, contamination is when materials are incorrectly placed into the trash, recycling or compost. It can also refer to the material containing unwanted substances such as food residue. In either way, contamination interferes with the recycling process and affects the entire globe.

Single Stream Recycling

In the 1990s, California was the first state to use single-stream recycling, the quick and easy waste process that allows us to throw anything we believe is recyclable into one bin. It is now the waste process used by nearly 2/3 of U.S communities. This process makes our everyday lives run more simple and easy, but it has a major impact on the contamination rate. The recycling in our bins is taken to a MRF (Material Recovery Facility) and sorted by both machines and workers. At the MRF, a great amount of processed recycled material ends up containing contaminants. The product that comes out of the MRF is then sold to people who will only buy a high quality recycled material. The higher the contamination, the lower the quality of the product. China (where 70% of the world's plastic waste goes) has cracked down on the amount of plastic it imports due to the decreasing quality of recyclable material from MRFs. So where does this low quality recycled material end up? The landfill of course.

In what ways can I improve my contamination?

Making sure your waste ends up in the acceptable bin is a difficult task. For example, paper products that are wet or soiled by food are not recyclable and must be put into the compost bin. This includes soiled cardboard, such as pizza boxes, and paper towels. Some contaminating products commonly placed in compost bins are any plastics such as latex gloves, food containers and glass. There is some waste material that is neither compostable or recyclable and may be put into the trash. However, there are very few items that fit the qualifications for trash disposal. Some of these include styrofoam and certain food wrappers for items such as chips and candy. It is also essential to make sure that electronic waste and hazardous materials do not end up in the trash. Below is a waste sorting guide from Recology that may help you remember where different materials should be placed. Even though the guide shows that plastic grocery bags belong in the garbage, they can be recycled at special bag recycling collections at most Safeways, Walmarts and Targets.

Simple tips to Keep Contamination Out of Recycling

- Here are 3 easy steps you can take to start reducing your contamination

1. Check the recycling labels

Some common plastics that cannot be thrown into the blue recycling bin include PVC (plastic wrap), LDPE (grocery bags), PS (to go boxes) and other or #7 plastics (BPA).

2. Make sure to rinse your recycling

Jars, bottles, cans and food containers may have food residue that may even contaminate other recycling, causing more material to end up in a landfill. A quick, thorough rinse should remove most food residue.  Heavy duty scrubbing is only necessary if the residue is sticky, such as a jar of marshmallow creme.

3. Keep out soiled, shredded or broken recycling

Soiled paper products such as pizza boxes can be put into the compost bin instead. Shredded and wax coated paper as well as broken glass cannot be recycled either. However, shredded paper that is uncolored and non-glossy may be composted. Broken glass should be wrapped in paper or sealed in a box and disposed into the garbage.

Up-to-date signage that is constantly updated with granular contamination information can be a vital piece of the puzzle.

Targeted Signage for zero waste education
Update signage frequently with targeted information and a call to action

The Importance of Recycling Education

As our natural resources are being depleted and landfills are filling up at rapid rates, the knowledge of how to recycle properly is crucial for everyone to have. When we recycle it benefits both our society and the planet we live on by reducing the amount of raw resources obtained from the environment. Products manufactured from recycled material costs much less money and energy and has a much smaller impact on the environment than products that use resources from our environment, also helping reduce deforestation. In order for single-stream recycling to be successfully processed it requires people to take a few extra steps to make sure their recycling is not contaminated. When this system is used properly it can generate over 700,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and over $6 billion in tax revenue.

Due to the fact that these benefits are only possible if we reduce contamination, we must strive to educate ourselves as well as spread awareness about the importance of proper recycling. 65% of Americans believe that plastic grocery bags could be thrown into the blue recycling bin. This substantial percentage shows the huge lack of recycling education amongst our society. A Material Recovery Facility can only function if people are informed on what to recycle and where to do it. In most schools, students do not learn much further than reduce, reuse, recycle. Spreading awareness about proper recycling is the first step in improving our societies knowledge on contamination. Informing fellow residents through newsletters and public service announcements is a simple action you can take to spread awareness. On social media you can easily create or share a post with your communities recycling guidelines.

It is important to remember that a simple task such as rinsing an aluminum can before tossing it into the recycling is one of the first steps to take in ending the exploitation of our resources and slowing down climate change. Even though most of us have hectic schedules and barely have time to read an article, taking time to take these first steps will go a long way and even improve the lives of our future generations.

To learn about how Zabble is playing a central role in helping organizations reduce contamination, please get in touch with our team.