Recycling Contamination Q & A

Author: Suzie Vance, EnviroPerks

Understand recycling contamination

Q: What is recycling contamination?

A: Recycling contamination is ANYTHING that cannot be recycled through your local hauler. Every community is different, sometimes with multiple haulers in a single community. What constitutes contamination is dependent upon what can be recycled locally. If your local hauler accepts only paper, plastic, and metal for recycling and you put your glass bottles in the recycling bin, you’ve just contaminated the entire bin—and possibly the entire truckload of recycling!

Q: Are there some things that are always considered contamination?

A: YES! Food waste is always a recycling contaminant–unless it is being collected for composting. Some other common contaminants are scrap metal, ceramics (like dishes and light bulbs), liquids in containers, hazardous waste (like household cleaners, paint, and motor oil), chemicals, batteries, plastic bags (loose or containing other items), electronics, and Styrofoam.

Q: Are there any recyclables that can also be considered contamination?

A: Yes. Depending on your hauler, some type of plastics are considered contaminants. A very common plastic that cannot be recycled curbside is plastic bags. They can shut down the entire operation if they get stuck in the machinery; that’s why you will need to bring those to your local grocery store or city-specific collection facility for recycling. Whenever possible, use your own bags for shopping.

Another common item that most people think is recyclable is the paper coffee cup (for example: the Starbucks cup). None of the EnviroPerks cities can recycle paper coffee cups because they have a thin polyethylene plastic coating that is difficult to recycle.

Q: I took the food-covered bottom off my pizza box, but the hauler said that the entire pizza box is unrecyclable? Why can’t I recycle the part that looks good?

A: Pizza boxes, although they are made of paper, also have food and grease residue on them, even though we may not see it. Once soiled, the paper cannot be recycled because the paper fibers will not be able to be separated from the oils during the pulping process.

Q: We use a lot of paper napkins, plates, cups, etc., that don’t appear to be soiled. Can these be recycled?

A: These items should be thrown into the garbage. Once you’ve used them, they’re contaminated. Even a small amount of oil or food on them makes them unrecyclable. Also, many paper products (like plates and cups) have a thin plastic lining that gives them strength or prevents leaking. This plastic lining is considered a contaminant because it is NOT what is being recycled—PAPER.

Q: My Styrofoam plate had a small amount of food on it, and I washed it off before discarding it. Can it be recycled?

A: Not unless your city specifically accepts Styrofoam for recycling. Styrofoam is normally not recyclable, and should be placed in the garbage. If your city accepts Styrofoam for recycling, please check the number on the product to make sure that it corresponds to the number(s) accepted for recycling by your city.

Q: I only had a sandwich and chips on my paper plate (no wet foods). Can this plate be recycled?

A: No. Again, once it’s been used, it’s contaminated. Here’s why: Even a small amount of food or grease eventually begins to grow mold (even if you don’t see the food residue). Since it can take several weeks for a recyclable item to go from your bin to the recycling processor, there is ample time for even a small amount of food to develop a nasty case of mold. Remember, everything that is present in the materials when the recycling process begins ends up in the final product—and back in our homes.

Q: My recycling is about 95% clean and uncontaminated. That’s good, right?

A: It’s good, but can you do better? We all do our best to recycle properly, but don’t always take the time to do it right. We forget to rinse out a plastic bottle before putting it in the recycling bin or decide that a pizza box looks clean enough to recycle, or think that something that is made of two different recyclable  materials (like paper and plastic) is recyclable. We have good intentions, but even a small amount of contamination is enough to disrupt the entire recycling process. And, the effects are cumulative. If everyone makes sure that 95% of their recycling is uncontaminated, that means that 5% IS contaminated. That may not seem like a lot, but the contamination weakens the finished product—and ends up back in our homes.

Q: What can I do to reduce recycling contamination?

A: Educate yourself. Call your local recycling hauler or city recycling provider and ask them what you can and cannot recycle locally, i.e., which plastics (by number), paper products, types/colors of glass, types of metals, etc. Ask about drop off locations for items that can’t be recycled curbside. Many cities offer drop off locations for paper, plastic, metal, glass, electronics, and hazardous waste. Visit your city’s/hauler’s website to get additional information. And, read EnviroPerks blogs and follow us on Facebook to continue your recycling education. Before long you’ll be a recycling expert, and have a 0% recycling contamination rate!