Single-Stream Recycling and the Rise of Contamination

The source and impact of waste stream contamination, and what you can do to help.


The phrase “when in doubt, throw it out” is most commonly associated with food safety -- namely reducing the chances of food poisoning -- but has since become a mantra of the recycling industry mantra of the recycling industry. This is because of the switch to single-stream recycling systems across much of the country, which have helped reduce collection costs and increase the volume of recycled material, but have also led to increased levels of non-recyclable materials ending up in recycling bins.

This contamination causes some serious problems: non-recyclable materials often have to be manually removed from the recyclable goods; items like plastic bags and wire hangers can get stuck in processing equipment, bringing operations to a halt; larger items (like chunks of wood or scrap metal) can damage processing equipment; and too many contaminants can reduce the quality of recyclable materials overall. These problems are often very expensive and time consuming to fix. In some cases, these materials can spoil entire loads of recyclables, making them unusable -- which means they get sent to landfill.
Confusion as to what does and doesn’t belong in the recycle bin is the main source of this contamination, which means that efforts to educate people about what waste belongs in which bin is becoming increasingly important. It’s important to recognize that regulations for what can and cannot be recycled vary depending on who is processing your recycling, so there is no perfect catch-all rules for what will and will not be accepted by your local recycling facility.

If you find yourself confused about how to throw something away, the best thing you can do is to contact either your city officials, or your local recycling facility and ask them. However, here are some general tips to follow when dealing with recyclable materials: Clean/rinse out food scraps and residue from recyclable materials before putting them in the bin; Avoid putting problem items like plastic bags, wire coat hangers, and scrap metal in the recycling bin; Finally, reuse materials when possible.

By being active, educated, and engaged recyclers, we can reduce how much waste we send to landfills every year, and can improve both the quantity and quality of the materials that we recycle. Together we can help keep our planet clean -- happy recycling!

- Jake