The truth is- we are terrible at recycling. Yes, the degree of which we mess it up varies from country to country but pretty much no one gets it right. Our recycling faux pas are not without cost. To the contrary, putting waste items in the wrong bin has caused the cost of recycling to soar to the point that many municipalities have either done away with the institution or simply haul the recycle bin to the same place as the waste bin- typically a landfill or an incinerator.
Some would argue that the problem beings with having but a single bin for all recycled goods. For those of us old enough to remember, in many places recycling had to be sorted prior to collection. In a push to make recycling easier and more accessible most place now take it all in one bin, a system know as “single stream recycling”. Although it all goes into one bin it can’t all be recycled together. Instead it needs to be sorted post-collection (check out this blog from a few weeks ago to learn how AI is improving this process).
In addition to the challenge of sorting there is the added problem or contamination. In the recycling business “contamination” basically means items stuff that can’t be recycled mixed in with the stuff that can. Contamination can severely slow down sorting, ruin recycling facility machinery, or cause an entire batch of otherwise perfectly good recyclables to be sent to the landfill or incinerator.
The problem of contamination and difficulties of sorting are so pervasive that virtually every concerned institution has some version of “things to know”, “recycling FAQs”, or “become a master recycler” on their website. Check out some of the best ones I found here, here or here.
From my research, here is the top 3 list of recycling fails:
- Soft plastics- the most notorious soft plastic contaminating recycling streams today is the omnipresent plastic bag. In addition to the plastic bags, add any other flimsy plastics such as cookie tray liners, plastic wrapping, and most plastic packaging. The problem with these products is two fold. First, plastics can only be “downcycled”, meaning that they can only ever be turned into less useful plastic. Soft plastics are typically already as low quality as it gets so there’s really nowhere to go. Second, soft plastics commonly become entangled in recycle facility machinery creating the need for constant cleaning and maintenance, or worse, destroying the machinery all together. The good news is that more and more places are now accepting soft plastics, but they must be sorted and placed into a special bin beforehand.
- Soiled recyclables- Yes, cardboard is recyclable, but not if is soaked in pizza grease. Yes, disposable diapers are mostly plastic but soak it with human excrement and you’ll need to chuck it. Yes, your glass or plastic mayonnaise jar is recyclable but not when it’s still caked with mayo. In every case, you are attempting to add very non-recyclable stuff (grease, poop, and mayo) into the recycling stream. Put your soiled items into the waste bin and save a batch of otherwise perfectly good recyclables from the landfill.
- Mixed materials- common mixed materials that contaminate recycling streams include disposable coffee cups, milk cartons and product packaging. In the case of the coffee cups and milk cartons, they are lined with either wax or plastic to prevent the liquids they hold from absorbing into the otherwise perfectly recyclable paper container. With product packaging you will often find thin soft plastics glued to paper back. In either case, the materials cannot be separated from one another so they cannot be recycled. The bright spot here is that Starbucks has promised to have a fully recyclable or compostable cup by 2021.