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?

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“Reduce, reuse, recycle” has long been the mantra of the environmental movement. Even though it comes third in that list, recycling is often the most obvious way to take action on sustainability. And it’s never been more accessible than in the current decade. In 2014, 96% of Americans had access to paper recycling. A 2015 report by the American Chemistry Council found that 60% of Americans had access to several types of plastic recycling.

That’s partly because many recycling systems across North America have adopted the single-stream model. Rather than having to separate glass, plastic, and paper at home, consumers can put all recyclables into a single container, whose contents are later sorted at a facility. Recycling has become, relatively, convenient.

Unfortunately, it’s also facing a huge problem: rampant contamination. If we don’t get better at recycling, we may lose access to our favorite “R” altogether.

What recycling contamination looks like

Recycling contamination is anything you put in your recycling bin that doesn’t belong there. That can be big items that don’t make sense, like clothing, heavy metal, or diapers. “Believe it or not, some people think that diapers are recyclable,” says Janet Pritchard, municipal manager at solid-waste management firm Republic Services, in Bellevue, WA. “They are not.”

But it can also be smaller contaminants, often contributed by even the most dedicated recyclers. “The two greatest examples are food and moisture,” Pritchard says. She gives an example of a peanut butter jar that you’ve tried to clean, but still has a little bit left at the bottom. That peanut butter jar isn’t recycling, it’s trash.

All recycling gets inspected for contaminants, because much of our recycling is being sold: the United States exports about one third of its recycling every year, the city of Calgary alone exports half of its mixed plastics and all of its mixed papers to China. Buyers don’t want plastic that smells like old food. Not to mention, Pritchard says, “Food invites vermin, which is a public health hazard.”

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

Moisture is another problem. In single-stream systems, glass, plastics, and paper are generally all under the same bin lid until pick-up day. That means they’re all exposed to the same contaminants. If you throw a not-quite-empty bottle of Diet Coke into the bin, when the recycling truck compresses its contents to make room, that bottle gets squeezed and explodes all over once-quality paper goods.

Now that paper and cardboard is garbage, too. That’s because paper and cardboard grow mold when wet, Pritchard says. And she comes back to what buyers will purchase. Moisture adds weight to cardboard and paper: “If a buyer is purchasing a ton of cardboard, they want a ton of cardboard, not water.”

Mother Nature also sabotages her fair share recycling attempts. How often have you seen a recycling bin overflowing before pick-up day? When a bin is too full for the lid to close, there’s nothing to stop rain from entering and turning perfectly recyclable paper and cardboard into trash.

Many of the above examples are symptomatic of what has been called “aspirational recycling,” “wish-cycling,” and “wishful-thinking recycling.” Essentially, people put things in the recycling bin hoping that they’re recyclable, even when they’re not. While it might be tempting to view wish-cycling as harmless, it has severe consequences for the recycling industry.

Recycling contamination is expensive

When a load of recycling is contaminated—whether by water, food residue, or items that aren’t recyclable—it costs money, because that waste ends up being processed twice. “Not only does it have to be processed as if it were the good stuff, but then we have to send it to a landfill because it’s garbage,” Pritchard says. In Florida, 30% of all recycling loads are turned away due to contamination. Toronto is struggling with a 26% contamination rate in its recyclables, and spends between $600,000 and $1 million each year for every one of those percentage points.

It’s also expensive because some items wreak havoc at recycling plants. In Phoenix, AZ, plastic bags alone—which are not recyclable at the majority of sorting facilities—raise costs by $1 million every year. The bags get stuck in machinery, forcing the plant to shut down to remove them, leading to hours of unproductive time. Pritchard says batteries have also become a huge problem. “When they’re compressed… [batteries] can spark fires,” she says. “We’re talking about a facility that has a lot of flammable material.”

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

As of 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 34% of waste in the US is recycled—not nearly as impressive as the top performer, Germany, which recycles about 66% of its waste. Canada doesn’t even rank in the top 25 countries for recycling, although British Columbia has one of North America’s leading recycling programs. The province’s recycling is handled by a non-profit organization, Recycle BC, and its costs are paid by businesses that generate waste in their packaging or products. BC also recycles all its plastics in-province, unlike the US or Canada generally, which respectively ship about 23% and 12% of their plastic recycling overseas.

There’s one more piece of especially bad news: China—which had previously imported at least half of the world’s paper, plastic and metal for recycling—has lowered the level of contamination it will accept in recyclable materials to 0.5%, and banned 24 types of material entirely (including unsorted paper, and several types of plastic). The change went into effect in January 2018, and it’s thrown the recycling industry into chaos.

In the Pacific Northwest alone, more than 2,000 tons of paper have been sent to landfills rather than recycled since China’s new rules took effect. One small Oregon facility, Rogue Waste, has had to bring all of its recycling to the landfill. Douglas County, OR, has already suspended most recycling.

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

Recycling companies are currently scrambling to increase sales to other foreign countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia or India. Still, whether we find purchasers abroad or create more domestic recycling infrastructure, we’ll see more and more recyclables end up in landfills if we don’t reduce contamination rates.

And those landfills are filling up! Global waste production has reached a staggering 1.3 billion metric tons every year. As we learn to recycle better, we also need to remember the other two Rs—reduce and reuse—so we throw out less to begin with. And, when we do fall back on recycling, we need to do it well.

Here are a few ways to quickly improve your recycling habits:

  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.”

Don’t let your recycling efforts be in vain. Educate yourself about what belongs—and doesn’t belong—in your recycling container today. It may be the only way to ensure we can all recycle tomorrow.

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