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Most people in the United States are taught that they should recycle, and most (94%) say they support recycling, so why are only 34.7% of Americans actually recycling? According to a 2019 survey by the waste management company Covanta, this inaction can be attributed to a lack of understanding on how to recycle, rather than a lack of care. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, even those who do actively recycle are not always doing so correctly. This leads to recyclables becoming contaminated and unusable.
What is recycling contamination?
Contamination occurs when product residue remains on recyclables, when non-recyclables are mixed with recyclables, and when different types of recyclable materials are mixed. If a batch of recycling has too high of a contamination percentage, the entire batch is discarded as waste. The most effective way to prevent this waste is to follow the guidelines established by each recycling company- Never assume that the procedures for each type of recycling will be the same!
How can contamination be prevented?
A great first step to avoiding contamination in recycling is making sure the intended items align with current guidelines. For plastics and some other non-standard materials, start by searching for a recycling number or recycling instructions- If you cannot find a recycling number or instructions, chances are that the item in question is not recyclable. Exceptions may include cardboard, paper, aluminum, tin, or steel cans, which are typically recyclable. After confirming an item is recyclable, the next step is to thoroughly rinse out any food, cleaning, or cosmetic product residue from the container. If recycling cardboard or paper, be sure to look out for any oil or food stains, as those count as contaminates.
Another great way to avoid contamination is by using sorted recycling bins instead of single-stream recycling bins. Single-stream recycling is a system in which all types of recyclables can be placed in the same bin; however, this type of recycling often leads to cross contamination causing huge waste. While convenient, oftentimes neither humans nor machines can adequately and quickly sort single-stream recyclables resulting in high levels of contamination. Remember, contaminated recyclables end up in a landfill: exactly what we are trying to avoid by recycling! Because of these reasons, separating recyclables into like bins is the safest way to go.
A Note from the Author
The next time you unpack a cardboard box or empty a can of soup, remember the simple step I have laid out for you. I hope you feel empowered by the knowledge that you can make the correct decisions regarding product recyclability and preparation. Thank you for doing your part to keep waste out of landfills!
To find more information on specific types of recycling, follow these resources: