Top Recycling Contaminants and Why it Matters

close up photo of plastic bottle
Photo by Catherine Sheila on

Every other week the city that I live in picks up the recycle bin. I cringe when I see my neighbor’s bins overflowing with plastic bags, paper plates and other items that I know are not accepted in our bins. Recycling contamination is a big issue because it inhibits our move to a more circular economy, and it results in more items ending up in the landfill that don’t need to be there.

Simply put, recycling contaminates are items put into the recycling stream that are not accepted or are not properly cleaned. When this happens, the items are no longer recyclable, and they become general waste. In many of the world’s large cities, single-stream recycling is offered. This means that you can mix glass, paper, aluminum and plastic is a single bin that the city will pick up and recycle. Many of these contaminates can cause the sorting machinery to break down and it increases the cost of recycling items because workers must manually sort the items. In many places, workers aren’t available to manually sort the items and they are just thrown into the trash that goes to the landfill.

In fact, the percentage of plastics that get recycled is frightening. According to National Geographic, only 9% of plastics are recycled. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2018 over 35,000 tons of plastic was generated, 29,000 of that ended up in landfills and only a little over 3000 was recycled. The numbers vary slightly around the world, but all of them are very low when compared to the amount of plastic we use in our daily lives. I believe it’s important that we all do our part to reduce contamination in the recycling stream. Here are some of the most common recycling contaminants and is not an exhaustive list. Contaminants vary by location as not all recycling centers are the same.

  1. Plastic bags – It still surprises me in 2022 that people walk out of a store with their items in a plastic bag. But it happens every day and these bags create a ton of waste that if put into a recycle bin, causes contamination. This includes plastic grocery bags, zip lock bags, produce bags, plastic film, bubble wrap and any flexible wrap that food items may come in.
  2. Paper towels, napkins, paper plates, paper cups and tissues. These items can be composted, but not recycled.
  3. Non-recyclable plastics – This refers to the resin identification code or the number on the plastic items and it determines if it is recyclable or not. It’s important to read the label and ensure that it is accepted by your recycling center. If that number is not accepted and it’s added to the bin, it becomes a contaminant.
  4. Polystyrene foam – Think foam take away containers. Many cities offer drop off recycling for these items, but they should not be added to the single stream recycling bin.
  5. Food debris or liquids either dumped in the recycle bin or left in the recyclable containers. It’s important that items are rinsed, free of food debris and dry.
  6. Pizza boxes – If you compost, this is the perfect place for pizza box. If not, do not put it into the recycle bin because the grease contaminates the cardboard making it non-recyclable.
  7. Frozen food boxes – This one surprised me! I had no idea that frozen food boxes are typically treated with a chemical to prevent freezer burn on the food. Any items chemically treated in this manner are considered contaminants.

For many hard to recycle items there are programs that you can either pay to participate in or you can sort these items separately and take them to a special facility. Some of my favorite companies that focus on recycling hard to recycle items are Terracycle and Ridwell. Terracycle offers both paid and free programs.

It’s time that we all take an active role and do everything we can to reduce the impact on our planet. Recycling correctly is as important as doing it in the first place. I’d encourage you to investigate what items are accepted in your municipal recycling. Please pay attention and don’t contaminate the bin. We need the recycling system to work as much as possible to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.  

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