Reducing Recycling Contamination

If your company recycles, you have probably heard the term “contamination.” But do you know exactly how contamination affects your recycling program and how to avoid it?

Defining Contamination

What is recycling contamination? In short, it’s anything other than what you are specifically trying to collect for recycling. For instance, if you are collecting material x for recycling, anything other than material x is a contaminant. Even recyclable materials, such as plastic and other paper products, can act as contaminants if they are disposed of in the wrong recycling container. For instance, sorted white ledger or officer paper is usually recycled separately from corrugated cardboard (OCC) because these are considered two separate grades of paper and are valued at different amounts. If your company does have an agreement with your recycling service provider to collect OCC and office paper as two separate commodities, mixing the two together will contaminate your recycling stream and can affect any rebates you might receive. Similarly, if someone throws plastic into your OCC stream, this would be considered contamination and could have serious negative consequences for your recycling program, including a possibility of that OCC load being rejected and sent to the landfill. The only time it is okay to “comingle” or mix recyclables together is when you have an agreement to do so with your recycling service provider. Likewise, recyclables containing residues such as oil, food waste, and the like (unless specifically accepted by your recycling company) are considered contaminants and should not be added to your recycling stream.

Why Contamination Matters

As we mentioned previously, contaminants can have serious negative consequences for your recycling program. Here are just a few examples:

  • Degrading material values and reducing recycling rebates – Contamination, even if the contaminant is itself recyclable, will degrade the quality of your recyclables, which in turn lessens their market value.
  • Causing an inability to recycle -If there are too many contaminants in a recycling load, sometimes the recycling service provider will not accept the materials or recycling and the items will be sent to the landfill.
  • Breaking recycling machinery – Not all recycling machinery is equipped to take all types of material. Some items, like plastic film, can gum up sorting equipment if it is thrown into the wrong recycling container.
  • Causing safety hazards for recycling workers – Some materials need to be collected a certain way due to safety concerns for recycling workers. For instance, glass or electronic waste can be a very dangerous contaminant if it is added to the wrong recycling container.
  • Hurting relationship with recycling service providers – Because contamination not only reduces the value of recyclables but can also cause mechanical and physical harm during the recycling process, it is not uncommon for businesses with repeated contamination issues to be refused service by a recycling company over time.

What You Can Do

The best way to avoid contamination in your recycling stream is to talk with your recycling service provider about what you can recycle and how these materials should be sorted. Not every recycling company will operate the same way and different service providers may have different requirements. Aside from this, here are some additional things you could do to reduce contamination of recycling in your work space:

  • Label containers – Try to place labels on or near each recycling container or station explaining what can be recycled. To take this a step further, you can include pictures of example recyclable items, or include a list of non-acceptable materials for this container (this can be especially helpful if you notice repeated contamination issues).
  • Rinse and wipe clean – Even if your recycling service provider does not require this, having employees rinse and wipe away contaminants from recyclables such as plastic food containers will help improve the quality of your recycling stream.
  • Don’t just throw – Unless you have a commingled or single stream recycling program in place, not all recyclables can be sorted into the same recycling container. This fact may not be common knowledge among your employees so it might be a good idea to highlight this fact during any training or educational programing you have in place.
  • Keep all waste and recycling containers together – Unless you have a commingled or single stream recycling program in place, you should never have an isolated recycling container. Doing so may lead people to believe any recyclables can be placed in that container. Also, having recycling containers without any available trash containers (unless you are truly a zero waste facility) may lead to employees throwing waste items in with the recycling.

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