When I was a boy growing up on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, I would collect glass bottles that had been thrown out on the street, and take them to my local grocery store in exchange for a few cents apiece.
While I didn’t do this for the money, at the time I didn’t realize that I was recycling (or more accurately, allowing these bottles the chance to be reused). Back in the 1970s, there was little talk about saving the environment. All I knew was that I was, at least temporarily, saving these bottles from going to landfill.
Fast forward to today, and I have had a long, thirty-year career in waste and recycling management. While I’m excited by how much a part of our collective lives recycling has become in the past decade since I helped co-found Rubicon Global in 2008, I’m worried by a growing trend toward “aspirational recycling,” the action of feeling like something should be recyclable, so you throw it in the recycling bin under the assumption that if it’s not recyclable, the individuals sorting through your recycling at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) will simply take it out.
Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. While practices vary between cities and municipalities, more often than not if you place something in your recycling bin that isn’t recyclable, it will cause the whole load to be thrown out. This is recycling contamination, and it’s a big problem for commercial and residential customers alike.
What is Recycling Contamination
Recycling contamination, meaning the average amount per load of recycling that isn’t deemed recyclable by a city or municipality, increased from 7 to 25 percent in the last decade, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association. This is largely due to a sharp increase in cities implementing single-stream recycling during this period—by 2014 80 percent of all curbside recycling programs in the United States were single stream.
This move to single-stream recycling, and the uptick in contamination that followed, was quite deliberate by the large waste companies—many of whom also own and manage the landfills to which this larger quantity of contaminated recycling will end up. In the words of Neil Seldman and Peter Anderson in an editorial for Waste Dive, single-stream recycling “…meet[s] the needs of a handful of large waste companies rather than maximiz[ing] recycling for the public good.”
While China (and now potentially, India) isn’t the be-all and end-all for U.S. recyclables, the move to single-stream recycling, in which all recyclables are to be placed in one container together, instead of separating out our papers, plastics, and glass, has lead to this sharp increase in contamination. This happens both when a non-recyclable material is thrown in with your recycling, and when a recyclable material is thrown in that hasn’t been washed out. In certain cities, if just one item in a load of recycling is considered contaminated the whole load will be taken to landfill. This is based off a model of simple economics; the margins for selling recyclable materials is low, and the more contaminated a load of recycling becomes, the lower these margins fall still, until it becomes more economically viable for the MRF to send the entire load to landfill.
The image of people sorting through our recycling is largely a myth; rather than sorting, they’re usually looking for large materials and items that are clearly trash; such as food and used diapers, as well as plastic bags and anything else that could clog up their system.
What We Can Do
I’ve compiled a list of the best things businesses and individuals can do to lessen our aspirational recycling, and reduce our collective recycling contamination at the same time:
- Recycle for the city in which you live. Get to know your city’s recycling rules; what they do and don’t accept as recyclables; whether they are single- or multiple-stream, and then recycling according to these rules.
- Wash food debris from recyclables. Have signs up in your company’s break room reminding employees to rinse out (ensuring to not leave the faucet running) their yogurt pots and other recyclables before throwing them in the blue bin.
- Consider using the RUBICONMethod™. Focused on recycling and waste reduction best practices you can try today, the RUBICONMethod™ has been implemented in businesses up and down the country.
- “When in doubt, throw it out.” Not sure if your city recycles bottle caps? Throw them out. How about foil chip packets? Remember, nobody is going to pick through your recycling to make sure it’s contamination-free.
The waste of aspirational recycling can be slowed if we, businesses and individuals alike, do more to remove contamination from our recycling streams by educating ourselves on what is recyclable in the city or municipality in which we live, and remembering “when in doubt, throw it out.”
Perry Moss is a co-founder of and chief advisor to Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon Global’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or subscribe to our RSS feed.