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Blog October 2019 Updated July 2023

3 Ways to Avoid Recycling Contamination

Contamination is threatening the future of recycling.

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Contamination is threatening the future of recycling.

The recent changes in the recycling commodity market underline one very dirty problem with the current global recycling system – contamination.  The vast majority of recyclable material which was being collected and shipped overseas was filled with contaminated material. Previously, China, the largest importer of recyclable material, looked past the recycling contamination issue as they focused on keeping a steady stream of material to supply their rapidly growing industrial manufacturing economy.

In 2018, the Chinese government decided they wanted to clean up their own act, by implementing new strict standards on imported recyclable material. The new regulations basically shut down the export of recyclable plastic and fiber materials from Western countries including Western Europe and the US. With nowhere else to turn, domestic recycling companies in the US are being forced to sell recyclable material at extremely low prices, or even put recycled material into storage and wait for the return of a better recycling commodities market. In worst-case scenarios, haulers like Massachusetts-based EL Harvey have been forced to ship their material to landfills as far away as Ohio, as local landfills are exceeding their intake limits.  Before we completely abandon recycling, there are a few ways to prevent contamination that could dramatically improve recycling rates.

1. Prevent Contamination at the Source.

Sorting materials is not as convenient as single stream recycling. It takes time and an honest effort to properly sort various recyclables. While it may not be easy, it is the best way to avoid contamination. Make sure you take the time to rinse out your plastics bottles, glass containers, and metal cans. Products with content still in them are much more likely to be rejected from recycling facilities.  Also, it is important not to put these goods in plastic bags. Single-use plastic bags are not recyclable and actually are one of the biggest problem causers in the recycling process.  By preventing contamination at the source there is a much greater likelihood that material does not end up in a landfill.

2. Improve Technology

After recyclable material leaves your residence or business it often ends up at a facility called a Materials Recovery facility or an “MRF”. The MRF is where large-scale sorting takes place. MRF’s are traditionally staffed with dozens of humans attempting to do the impossible; sort through tons of waste and recycling streams to pick out and sort material as they rapidly move across conveyor belts. The job is difficult and can be quite dangerous. Despite the combined efforts of humans and technology, lots of material still escapes the MRF and ends up in the landfill.

Luckily, companies like Amp Robotics are gaining traction for their sorting robots. The artificially intelligent picking devices are programmed to learn to pick and sort recyclable materials, very similar to a person except faster and with even more accuracy. It will take time- even years before these machines are able to work with the precision needed to perfect their abilities, but they are already having a dramatic impact on the recycling market.

Waste and Recycling Companies are improving their own internal technology stacks to add operational efficiency and gather important recycling data from their customers.  By using mobile technology to document recycling contamination at the source operators can identify repeat recycling contamination offenders and then communicate with the customer the importance of proper recycling.

3. Improve Education/Government Policy

Perhaps the most pressing issue with recycling is the uninformed public. Many people do not know which materials can be recycled or how to recycle them. Also, people do not realize the damaging effects of not recycling.  People should realize that there are plenty of ways to recycle the majority of waste you generate in your household. Organizations like Recycle Smart in Massachusetts can keep you informed of what can go in your residential recycling container.

Even if you cannot recycle material in your weekly residential recycling route, there are plenty of companies looking to recycle almost everything you discard. Scrap Metal recycling facilities will gladly take any scrap from home remodeling projects or throwing away large appliances. In most cases, they will actually pay you for your used metal products.  Electronics recyclers will take your used computers, phones, and various electronic devices and recycle the precious metals stored within. Some municipalities even offer food and organics recycling programs, where they pick up food scraps and turn the material into compost that is used for agriculture. Before you simply throw items in the garbage, consider all recycling avenues.

Municipal organizations have already begun to put in place Zero Waste Initiatives to eliminate as much waste as possible.  Zero Waste does not just focus on recycling but also emphasizes the avoidance of disposal in the first place. It stresses not using one-use disposable materials like plastic water bottles and focuses on adding efficiencies in processing waste, and reducing CO2 Emissions by optimizing municipal transportation routes, etc. The City of Berkeley California for example has a Zero Waste Initiative that aims to completely eliminate landfill usage by the end of 2020. Boston, Massachusetts just launched their Zero Waste Initiative this summer to work aggressively for a cleaner city/world.

TFC Recycling, located in Chesapeak, VA

The Grim Alternative

Of course, there are rather unattractive alternatives if we choose not to prevent recycling contamination. Simply landfilling more recyclable material or burning recyclables at waste to energy facilities are two likely methods. Waste-to-Energy plants have gained some amount of attention because unlike landfills, they do not leave materials to degrade for thousands of years in the ground. Waste-to-Energy plants burn material and convert the heat into electricity. While scrubbers, and other pollution prevention methods have been deployed at Waste-to-Energy Facilities to improve the environmental viability of burning waste streams, there is still a significant damaging impact on the environment from air pollution and carbon emissions.  Modern landfills have also improved by using natural gas that builds up to create energy. Still, these two methods of waste disposal should only be looked at as a last resort, after recycling.

Where do we go from here?

Recycling Contamination is a huge issue and it is at the root of the recent recycling crisis. Landfill usage and waste-to-energy plants are the unfortunate alternatives if we do not clean up our act. Luckily, there are ways to avoid this bleak scenario. A combination of improving recycling efforts, as well as advancing technology provide a path towards a brighter future for recycling. While we can lean on technology to dramatically improve recycling facilities, we still need to consider our own direct effort to prevent recycling contamination at the source. In the end, we all need to work together to build a cleaner world.

Read also this article: Living sustainable lifestyle

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