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Recycling Contamination Creates Extra Work for Everyone

TAGS: The Business
We need to remind people why and how to recycle correctly.

Thursday is recycling day in my neighborhood. When I do my morning walk that day, I always see recycling bins in front of every house. I also occasionally see the wrong materials in those bins. These “contaminants” are creating a recycling problem.

Let’s face it, taking out the trash is simple. Everything goes out together because it has no further use. Taking out the recycling isn’t as simple. We have to remember what goes into which bin (or bins) to ensure that our recyclables have a further use. 

Sometimes we forget that recyclables are simply industrial raw materials. Manufacturers create specifications for those materials so that their suppliers will know what they need and what they won’t buy. Specifications for secondary raw materials (aka “recyclables”), describe both “contaminants” and “prohibitives.” The former can be tolerated to a minor degree. The latter cannot. By putting the wrong materials in the collection bins, people are creating extra work and problems for everyone in the recycling chain. 

From the very beginning, contamination has been a problem for curbside recycling. The first recycling bin was designed in the early 1970’s specifically to keep newspapers dry. Created for University City, Mo., the bin had one side that was longer than the other three sides. The idea was that if it was raining on collection day, the bin should be placed on its side with the long side on top to keep the paper dry. Back then (and still today), no one wanted to pay extra for water, especially when it also weakened the paper fiber. 

So what can be done to eliminate contamination? Education and enforcement are the usual suspects. We need to remind people why and how to recycle correctly. Moreover, when crews are collecting recyclables, they should not pick up contaminated recycling bins and instead leave some kind of notice about what went wrong. For anyone with much experience in recycling, this is not new.

But once again, the problem of contamination has shot to the forefront. China is tired of finding garbage in the bales of recyclables shipped to end markets in that country. As a result, the government wants to ban some paper and plastic recyclables from coming into China. This is a problem for American recyclers because Chinese manufacturers are some of their biggest customers. 

Losing Chinese markets would be a serious blow, but I think American recyclers will withstand this latest challenge. We have a reputation for shipping better recyclables than the Europeans and we have a strong incentive to improve collection and processing to ensure that our recyclables will find end markets.

So expect to hear more about better education and enforcement so that you and I can do our job the right way. Processing will get even more attention because that is where the bales of recyclables are created. The good news is that today’s MRF is lightyears more advanced than those of 2000 and the MRF of even five years from now will be even better. I’ll leave those improvements to the engineers and the MRF operators. 

But what else can we do? Some people say we shouldn’t mix our recyclables together, so let’s banish single stream recycling. In a sense they are right. The cleanest recyclables will always be kept separate from one another. But very, very few of us are willing to do that amount of separation, nor do we want the hassle of keeping that many containers for each type of recyclable. For that matter, I live in a dual stream county. As noted above, it’s not perfect either.

So let’s get radical. Maybe we need to rethink how much we want to recycle. If recycling’s goal is to maximize greenhouse gas reduction, we don’t need to recycle everything in the waste stream. Some materials have a bigger greenhouse gas reduction impact than others. We only need to recycle what we can before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. After all, the more materials we try to recycle, the more confusing it becomes. If recycling is going to provide raw materials for end markets, why do we keep making that more complicated? 

I don’t expect to ever go out on a Thursday morning and see perfection when it comes to recycling. But with better education, stepped up enforcement, and a focus on getting the most efficient bang out of recycling, I will see even fewer contaminants in the bins.

Chaz Miller is director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C.

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