Recycling bin

Action: Don’t contaminate the recycling

Based on an earlier article by guest writer Lakshika in the USA

Our recycling systems rely on responsible use by individuals

Please don’t contaminate the recycling

Recycling contamination means getting non-recyclables into the recycling streams and so quickly turning recyclables into non-recyclable waste.

A single piece of contaminated material can end up sending an entire batch of recyclables to landfill!

Recycling contamination is a huge problem in recycling systems around the world. This was demonstrated in 2018 when China implementing a new policy banning the importation of plastic waste into their country. Previously, and since the 1980’s, China had been the biggest importer and processor of plastic waste in the world with a contribution of 70%.

The main reason behind the new Chinese policy was contamination of the recyclables being sent; they ultimately had to be landfilled in their own country, leading to rising environmental and health concerns. The policy significantly affected recycling industries worldwide.

At a more local level, as a part of my research work I have visited businesses; automobile assembly plants, schools, hospitals, Metroparks, and restaurants to identify ways to help them improve waste management practices. No matter what the size of the facility, the main issue we have identified is recycling contamination.

There can be many things causing the contamination. All in one recycling bins are more likely to be contaminated, or due to the lack of proper information/education on what belongs in each bin, or what should not be placed in the bin, there is higher chance of contamination in the recycling stream.

Here are some very common types of mistakes that contaminate the recycling stream.

  1. Placing material in the wrong recycling bin
  2. Bagging the recyclables
  3. Food soiled containers (for example, greasy pizza boxes)
  4. Non-recyclables in the recycling bins (for example electronics, styrofoam, hazardous waste and yard/garden waste)
  5. Wrong types of plastic
  6. Some types of non-recyclable paper, such as tissue or laminated glossy paper
  7. Liquid still in bottles
  8. Cling film
Recycling criteria for bins

Proper segregation at the source is very important to improve the recycling streams and reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. Normally, guidelines are provided by the local waste management authorities on acceptable materials in their recycling stream. This example image show a list as an example of proper guidelines on acceptable materials in kerbside collection and drop-off locations in my area, however these guidelines may vary by location, so be sure to follow to the directions in your own area.

(click image for larger version)

How to reduce contamination

It is our responsibility to segregate properly in the recycling bins. Cleaning, emptying, and rinsing containers is always best before recycling as this will help prevent contamination from food, oil, and liquid.

In addition, clear labels on recycling bins and educational posters nearby are effective ways of improving the recycling stream in any workplace.

Why it is important?

When the recycling streams get contaminated, we lose the potential to turn the recyclables into a raw form that can be used to produce new products. This causes an increase in the consumption of natural resources.

In addition, contaminated recyclables become waste, pilling up in landfills. Even a tiny proportion of contamination could end up sending an entire batch of recyclables to landfill.

Non-recyclables in material recovery facilities can slow or block the process by damaging the machines, requiring regular maintenance, and even safety concerns for the employees.

We must do the best we can … once again, a small change by lots of people can make a big difference!!!

This article is based on one contributed earlier by
Lakshika Nishadhi
Thank you Lakshika
Insta: @waste.reduction
Twitter: @lakshikansh

Revised April 2024

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