Recycling contamination is as easy as putting the wrong item in the wrong bin. Depending on your recycling facility, you may have one to multiple recycling bins, and you may have different requirements for items to be recyclable. Therefore, this post will look at what happens to contaminated recycling batches, why that happens, and common recycling contaminants.
Recycling facilities do have workers that try to sort out all the waste products that are not recyclable at their facility. However, some batches simply have too many contaminants and are therefore sent to a landfill, regardless of how many recyclable items were in the batch. This is because recycling is still a business. If a batch is too contaminated, additional costs of sorting it could outweigh the cost of just sending it to the landfill. Not to mention the health risks of sorting through hazardous and bio-hazardous waste, the risk of damaging equipment, and the health risk of repairing equipment. Essentially, most recycling bins leave room for one to two minor mistakes, but not many more.
Since recycling facilities only sort through small and few contaminants, it is important for us consumers to recycle correctly. Here are some common recycling contaminants:
Plastic bags: Most recycling facilities do not have equipment capable of dealing with flimsy and thin types of plastic. There are other ways to recycle these, but mostly only in bigger batches. Grocery stores often have places to recycle plastic bags. The university also has multiple stations to drop off plastic bags for recycling, one being in the Hirst Lounge of Wilson Commons.
Food waste: This is most commonly found in recycling bins as residue on other otherwise recyclable items. This is a problem because food is most often repurposed as compost unlike other materials such as paper and plastic, meaning these cannot go through the same recycling processing. Additionally, recycling facilities will not spend the extra time and resources to clean out otherwise recyclable items. As previously mentioned, they will weigh the cost and choose the cheapest, so rinse out your recyclable waste!
Hazardous and bio-hazardous waste: Both of these bring risks to the recycling facilities’ workers and are therefore handled in separate facilities. Hazardous waste can sometimes be recycled, and when not, the materials are often responsibly contained and their containers are recycled. Bio-hazardous waste is generally not recyclable. If it has bodily fluids or other bio-hazards, then it can be a huge risk to the facilities’ workers as well (this includes diapers)!
Frozen food containers: This does not include all containers for frozen foods, but more specifically paperboard and similar ones. This is because they contain a coating or liner to prevent them from freezer burn which makes them not recyclable.
Loose shredded paper: Paper’s big, valuable trait is that it has long fibers. These are often shortened when shredded which means that they go through different processes to be recycled. See how your recycling facility (county) wants you to recycle shredded paper. In Monroe County, simply put the shredded paper in a paper bag in the recycling bin.
Extra tip: Always attach caps and lids to their container when recycling! The only exception is that glass containers with metal caps need to be put in the recycling bin separately.
Lastly, for anyone in Monroe County, here are some tips for recycling.
- Remember that everything is single-stream here. That means that all recyclable items go in the same bin. This increases the possibility of contaminating the whole bin and therefore bigger batches, so be mindful of what you put in the recycling bins.
- Plastic is recycled by shape, not number. Containers such as bottles, jugs, jars, and tubs are recyclable, but remember to rinse them first unless they are already clean. These are NOT recyclable: plastic bags, foam egg cartons, single-use plastics, and prescription bottles.
- Glass food and beverage bottles, jugs, and jars are recyclable as long as they are empty and clean. Remember to reattach lids and caps.
- These are especially NOT recyclable: plastic bags*, foam*, food or liquid waste, propane tanks*, electronics*, tarps or pool covers/liners, sharps/syringes*, clothing*
*Monroe County’s partner Ecopark will accept some of these along with other specific facilities.
For more information on recycling in Monroe County, visit their recycling website.
Essentially, remember that recycling is still a business and companies are often not willing to lose money. So recycle correctly to keep the workers safe, our recycling facilities at prime efficiency, and reduce the landfill and incinerated waste on our planet.
When in doubt, throw it out!
Written by Zein Tynon, Class of 2024
Rachelson, D. (2021, February 10). What is Recycling Contamination, and Why Does it Matter? Rubicon. https://www.rubicon.com/blog/recycling-contamination/.
Residential Curbside Recycling: Monroe County, NY. Residential Curbside Recycling | Monroe County, NY. (2019). https://www.monroecounty.gov/des-residentialrecycling.