Recycling contamination has become a global concern – and for good reason. Contamination is a serious issue in recycling, impacting businesses and exports as well as our planet. Dramatic shifts in the recycling market made headlines in 2017 when China banned many types of recyclable imports. Because of the U.S.’s high rates of contaminated recycling, more and more reusable goods and materials are being rejected.

As U.S. recycling exports continue to decline, and similar import bans are being considered in other countries, our recycling system is in desperate need of cleaner recycling. Already, some recycling companies are simply throwing recyclable goods into landfills. And the problem is only getting worse. This is not a time to throw in (or throw away) the towel. It’s time to double down and get recycling right.

Keep reading to learn more about recycling contamination and the difference you can make.

Causes of Recycling Contamination

Unfortunately, the biggest cause of recycling contamination is all of us. (Silver lining – that means we can fix this!) Well-intentioned people often mix non-recyclables in their bins, which can ultimately contaminate an entire batch of would-be recyclables. The main reasons all of us contaminate our recycling bins are:

  •      Lack of education about  what’s recyclable
  •      Varied capabilities and requirements per city and state
  •      Hazardous materials, like needles, diapers, pesticide cans, etc.
  •      Food waste and liquids
  •      Non-recyclable plastic, like grocery bags and zip-top bags

Read our blog post here for a quick list of recycling contaminants. 

Effects of Recycling Contamination

  •      Materials that could have otherwise been reused, instead go directly into a landfill
  •      Recycling becomes more expensive as money and time are required to separate contaminants
  •      Sorting machinery stops to disentangle non-recyclables, causing delays and added expenses
  •      Improper items can expose recycling workers to hazardous wastes and cause unsafe conditions
  •      Quality of recyclable byproduct decreases if contaminated, reducing the  market value
  •      Recycling companies struggle to recoup the cost of contamination

Recycling Contamination Facts

Fact 1: The average recycling contamination rate is 25%, or 1 in 4 items.

Fact 2: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75% of waste is recyclable, yet only close to 34% of it is recycled.

Fact 3: While glass can be reused for an estimated 1 million years, glass cookware — such as Pyrex, ceramics, and ovenware — can’t be recycled.

Fact 4:  Heavily soiled paper, wax coated paper, and shredded paper cannot be recycled.

Fact 5: Compostable items can contaminate your recycling. The processes of composting and recycling are very different, so you can’t recycle food waste or compostable serviceware.

Fact 6: The three-arrow triangle symbol on plastics  does not necessarily indicate that the material is accepted in the local recycling stream.  The symbol also shows the type of plastic it is. Plastics labeled #3 – #7 are typically only recycled in limited areas. So pay close attention!

Fact 7: Nearly 1,000 recycling plants in California alone have shut down within the last two years due to the recycling contamination crisis.

Fact 8:  Did you know that you can recycle your cigarette butts to be converted into energy? Check out TerraCycle and the Butts to Watts program to find out more.

Fact 9: According to the Government Advisory Associates, material recovering facilities in the U.S. using single-stream recycling has increased by 82.6% in the last ten years.

Fact 10: Proper recycling generates over half a million jobs and over 100 billion dollars of economic activity in the U.S.

Fact 11: Total scrap plastic exports have declined by 40% in the last year mostly due to the U.S.’s high level of recycling contamination.

Fact 12: Despite pricey recycling campaigns and new sorting technologies, recycling levels haven’t improved in the U.S. in 20 years.

Fact 13: In 2017, a survey by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries found that 28% of responders were confused about recycling, believing that it was a highly technical and sophisticated issue.

Fact 14: Recycle Across America has launched a massive recycling solution campaign by promoting nationwide standardization of recycling labels.

What You Can Do to Prevent Further Recycling Contamination

Without your help through individual action, recycling will continue to become less profitable and less possible. Understanding the importance of proper recycling, and being mindful of what you toss in the trash, is the first step to reducing contamination.

By following these recycling contamination tips, you’ll start to learn the dos and don’ts of recycling. Through the power of recycling, we can create more jobs, more economic opportunity and protect our planet.

Here’s how you can start reducing contamination in your recycling:

Set up a successful waste reduction and recycling program! Learn how to do that using our 6 steps for success, the RUBICONMethod! This is one of our main tools to combat the contamination problem. You must also: 

  •      Double check what you put in the bin. Always look for a recycling label.
  •      Know what your city or waste provider accepts and doesn’t. Some areas are more flexible than others about what can go in your recycling.
  •      Rinse your jars, glasses and recyclable food containers.
  •      Keep plastic bags out of your recycling bins.
  •      As a general rule of thumb, if it seems like it could get tangled (think garden hoses, wire hangers, strings of lights) it shouldn’t be recycled.
  •      Educate yourself on the proper way to recycle through resources like Keep America Beautiful.
  •      Work to involve your neighbors and community using The Recycling Partnership’s Contamination Kit.
  •      Unsure about which household goods you can recycle? Use this Recyclopedia.

Read the RUBICONMethod in full to start developing a more successful waste reduction and recycling program today.