Recycling Revised: 5 Simple Steps to Smarter Sustainability

These five simple fixes help improve our recycling capabilities significantly

As you finish your to-go coffee, you’re confronted with a choice: do you throw it in the trash, or can it be recycled? You examine the cup and note a confusing array of materials. The lid is plastic, the sleeve is paper, and the cup is some hybrid material of both, further complicating your decision. As you approach the bins, a sign reminds you of single stream, an innovative concept that allows all recyclable materials to be mixed (and later sorted), which affirms your desire to recycle the item. You recycle the cup and walk away feeling good about your small contribution to a more sustainable future.

Unfortunately, you made the wrong decision.

You’re not alone in this common mistake… in fact, waste managers have named this phenomenon “aspirational recycling,” which is the idea that when people are unsure about an item’s recyclable status, many opt to recycle it because it feels like the right thing to do. Despite the good intent, this misunderstanding has severe consequences. Because items cannot be processed together, even one non-recyclable “contaminant” can cause an entire bin of recyclable goods to be rejected by waste managers and thrown out.

It turns out that the introduction of single stream recycling programs has overwhelmingly increased contamination rates. Though much more convenient, evidence indicates that when all recyclables are combined in one bin, we are more likely to put trash in the bin as well. Two neighboring counties in Florida attest to this trend. Palm Beach County implements a pre-sort recycling method, and their contamination rate is a manageable 9%. Alternatively, Broward County utilizes single stream, and has a contamination rate of 30%.

The harsh implications of contamination certainly raise the stakes when it comes to proper recycling. These five simple fixes help to decrease contamination rates, improving our recycling capabilities significantly:

1) When in Doubt, Throw it Out

Educational recycling campaigns created this phrase in hopes to reduce aspirational recycling. If you’re unsure whether something can be recycled or not, throw it out! it’s always better to throw away one item than to risk contaminating an entire bin of recyclables!

2) Rinse Your Recyclables

Leftover food and liquid are the most common forms of contamination. When you empty out plastic containers, give them a quick wash to ensure that they’re clean before they go into the recycling.

3) Keep it Loose

Do not bag your recyclables! As counter-intuitive as it may seem, plastic bags cannot be recycled because they are easily caught in sorting machines. When waste facilities receive bundled recyclables, the entire bag ends up in a landfill. Don’t let your efforts go to waste; be sure to dump contents from plastic bags when emptying them in recycling bins.  

4) Separate Mixed Materials

When two or more materials are connected, they cannot be recycled together, even if both materials themselves are recyclable (think mail packaging). Remember to separate all components, then recycle and/or throw out each part individually depending on the material.

5) Brush Up on Lists of Recyclable Goods  

Learn about your regional recycling guidelines to ensure that you’re making the right call on recyclable materials. One simple Google search could make a huge difference.

Commonly misplaced non-recyclable items include:

● Greasy Pizza Boxes

● Bubble Wrap

● Plastic Bags

● Paper Plates and Cups

● Plastic Utensils

● Foam Egg Cartons

● Single Use Coffee cups

● Paper Towels / Napkins

● Broken Glass

● Plastic Stretch Wrap

Don’t underestimate your power as an individual-- when done properly, the impact of public recycling is significant. Follow those simple steps to ensure that your role as a recycler fulfills your intent!

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Sources:

lbre.stanford.edu/pssistanford-recycling/frequently-asked-questions/frequently-asked-questions-contamination

www.recyclingsimplified.com/recycling-basics/

www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/climate/recycling-wrong-mistakes.html

www.vox.com/videos/2019/3/12/18252188/recycling-wrong-contamination-trash

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