Recycling correctly is so important; it is our last line of defense in our war on waste! Contamination of recycling waste can lead to the machines breaking and entire loads being discarded into landfill. Recycling rates in most countries is astonishingly low, only about 9% of rigid plastic gets recycled per year in the US and about 33% of glass is recycled, and this figure is on the decrease. Many countries, such as the US, will ship part or all of their recycling waste to offshore facilities based in countries like China. But recently, China has banned all recycling with a higher than 1% contamination rate. The purest recycling in the US has a roughly 4% contamination rate. This leaves us facing a major recycling problem!
We’ve created a list of a few easy things we can all do to help ensure that our recycling waste actually ends up getting recycled correctly.
1. Know what goes in your bin and stop ‘wishcycling’!
It’s very tempting to put something in the recycling bin and hope and pray that it will be recycled. But unfortunately, wishing (even if it is with all your might!) doesn’t help an item get turned into something new, and wishcycling is actually a major problem for recycling plants.
It’s helpful to think of recycling as a business, not a charity. A recycling company will take products and turn them back into raw materials that someone will buy. In order for someone to buy these materials at a price that makes it possible for the recyclers to make money, the raw materials have to be a high quality.
So to help ensure the quality of these materials, we have to be sure to put the right waste in the right place. As a general rule, only a few items can go into curbside recycling. Those are:
- aluminum cans and tin
- rigid plastics #1 and #2
Anything other than that is not fit for the curbside recycling bin.
As we talked about above, recycling waste often needs to meet certain contamination thresholds to go to third-party waste management companies. If the contamination is greater than these thresholds —if there’s too much trash present— that entire load is likely to be destined for landfill. So please check to see what goes into your bin regularly!
2. No plastic bags. Seriously.
Plastic bags, like grocery bags and chip bags, are the number 1 contaminating item in recycling programs. They can be particularly harmful to recycling plants because they get tangled in the equipment and can cause serious damage.
And this doesn’t go for just large plastic bags. Even small bags like sandwich Ziplock bags, plastic wrapping and other soft plastics can cause these problems. These items can be recycled, just not in your curbside recycling. Most major grocery stores will have a recycling bin for these types of plastic where they will be turned into products such as benches or speedbumps. This process is technically called downcycling.
This also means you shouldn’t bag your recyclables. Just put them loose into your recycling bin at home. When a plastic bag full of recyclables arrives at a facility, workers are not allowed to open the bags, which means that the entire bag, even if it’s full of wonderfully recyclable items, is considered trash and goes straight to landfill. Exactly what we are trying to avoid!
3. Small things turn into large problems
As a rule of thumb, don’t put anything smaller than a credit card in your recycling bin. Small things, like straws, coffee pods and bottlecaps are too small to be sorted at the facilities and can also jam the machines. This can happen ten to fifteen times a day and costs these facilities precious time and money.
Keep the plastic lids on your bottles as these can be easily sorted. Metal bottle caps are a different story and are a little bit trickier to deal with. If possible, collect them up and take them to a company that collects scrap metal. If this is beyond your commitment level (we certainly wouldn’t blame you if it did!), it’s probably best just to put them into your general trash.
4. Make sure it’s empty, clean and dry
Food waste is another major contaminator of recycling. In the US, food waste contaminates at least 25% of recycling loads, which means they are destined for landfill. Keeping your recycling empty, clean and dry will go a long way in preventing this from happening.
You can’t recycle a half empty jar of peanut butter, or that pizza box covered in cheese and grease. Remember, if we want recycling to be a profitable business so that it keeps happening, we must help to produce a quality product. This isn’t to say that your recycling has to be handwashed and spotless, but it does mean emptying out that yoghurt container, or scooping out the last bit of peanut butter, giving the item a rinse under running water to get rid of remaining food particles and a shake off to dry. Then you’re good to go!
This does take a few extra seconds, but it will make a real difference to the amount of recycling contamination. If you choose not to do it, consider putting your recycling waste in the trash instead to save it going via the recycling plant and contaminating an entire load before it reaches its landfill end.
5. Combined materials are trash
Products can only be recycled with materials that are exactly the same. So, items like paper-bubble wrap envelopes and plastic-coated coffee cups that cannot be separated can’t be recycled. Put these into your trash can to prevent contaminating your recycling bin.
6. Know your plastics
Not all plastics can be recycled. We’ve already talked about soft plastics not being recyclable in your curbside bin, but there are some issues with rigid plastics as well. Rigid plastics are labeled by resin codes #1 through #7 (you know, those little numbers found in the center of the three arrows that make it seem like the product is recyclable even though they aren’t necessarily?). Usually, the higher the number, the less recyclable the item is. Most recycling centers accept plastics with codes #1 and #2 without an issue, but for numbers above this, it is advisable to check with your local waste management facility. Usually, plastic cutlery, clam-shell containers and straws are not recyclable and should go into your trash can.
7. Support recycling systems!
We usually only focus on the act of recycling our own waste products, but what happens when that waste becomes a new product? It’s important to show our support of recycling by buying things that are made from recycled materials. Remember, as a consumer you have enormous power to vote with your wallet and be an advocate for real and lasting change in our world!