Many of the questions our office receives are related to contamination. People don't specifically ask about contaminants, but instead, ask "Why can't I put XYZ into the recycling cart?"
So how does this question relate to contaminating recycling?
Once an item leaves your recycling cart, it goes to a Material Recovery Facility (also known as a MRF). At the MRF, there is equipment to separate the various types of materials from one another. Some items are easy to separate, for example, magnets for steel cans.
Some items aren't so easy, this happens with plastic caps. In the case of plastic caps, due to their size, if they do not stay connected to the bottle, they are too small for the equipment to sort them properly. This means they find their way into other recyclables. Once this happens, the plastic cap is considered a contaminant in the other item being sorted for recycling.
Once sorted, items are then baled into giant cubes by another machine. People do inspections, but they can't catch everything. So, when something like plastic caps gets into paper, the paper bale is contaminated with the plastic caps.
This is an issue in today's recycling industry because of the stricter requirements buyers have set for how much contamination is acceptable in the bales of recyclables they purchase. Currently, contamination for a bale must be under 0.5% (less than 1%!). That keeps everyone on their toes.
How You Can Help
How can you help with keeping contamination low? Only put the following items in your recycling:
- Metal beverage and food cans
- Plastic bottles and jugs (rinsed/no caps)
Placing other items in your cart, with the hope that it can be recycled, actually has a negative effect on recycling. The more items that aren't included on this list that make their way into the recycling stream increases the contamination rates. You might think, "this plastic tray from my frozen dinner should be recycled" but in the case of plastics, if it's not in the shape of a bottle or jug, it is contaminating the recycling system.
It might seem counter-intuitive to not "recycle" as much, but by keeping to the list, you'll create a clean recycling steam that will help us keep contaminants out of our recyclables.