Maggie Koerth-Baker, FIveThirtyEight
So now you know: Throwing all your recycling into a single bin ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Single-stream recycling may be more convenient, but, as we reported last week, it’s also to blame for a huge increase in contamination that makes your recycling unrecyclable. You think you’re saving the planet, but you’re actually just adding to the landfill.
Since that story came out, many readers have contacted me asking for tips on how to reduce recycling contamination. I went back and spoke with a couple of my sources, and there are definitely some steps you can take. Remember, though, some contamination is intrinsic to the way single-stream recycling works — you’re unlikely to fix the problem of crushed glass shards mingling with paper and plastic on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help.
1) Learn your local rules
Recycling programs are not all the same. Some accept glass. Others don’t. Or you might be able to recycle one kind of plastic but not others. And that’s not even counting all the things that say they can be recycled on the packaging but that cannot be recycled via your home recycling bin. Don’t assume you can intuit what is and isn’t accepted. Cultural osmosis and reading the labels on packaging isn’t enough. You’ll have to go ask your specific recycling provider, said Bernie Lee, a commodities research analyst with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association.
Yes, he means call up your city’s information hotline, or the county recycling center, or the company actually processing your recycling and ask what they do and don’t take. That sounds onerous, I know. Unfortunately, sometimes the public has to do the hard work when corporations and private services drop the ball. Recycling companies and municipal programs “really failed on education” as single-stream recycling became more popular, said Brent Bell, a vice president at Waste Management Inc., a national recycling hauler.
I heard that same thing from multiple sources. Recycling programs across the country apparently switched to single-stream, mailed out a glossy flier once, and expected that that would be enough for users to get it right. This has turned out to be an incorrect assumption. Like a lot of readers I heard from, I had always figured that if I didn’t know whether a thing was recyclable, I was better off putting it in recycling than in the trash. But the phrase you’ll hear from recycling experts is now “when in doubt, throw it out.”
2) Clean the food off
If you’ve got a can of soup or beans, rinse it out before you put it in the bin. Same goes for milk jugs, beer bottles, butter tubs, all of it. Those containers don’t have to be sparkling clean, Lee told me. No need to wash with hot water and soap, in other words. A cold swish will do the job. If they aren’t rinsed, the food scraps from cans and bottles could end up getting onto paper products, and that makes the paper harder to recycle.
“Paper makes up a majority of the residential recycling stream per tonnage,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, all that paper doesn’t fetch a super high price on the resale market. So contamination makes this huge proportion of your recycling even less valuable, upping the chances of nobody buying it and it ending up in the landfill. Rinsing away all the organic material is a relatively easy added step that can make a big difference.
3) Break down your boxes
Cardboard use has gone up 8 percent in the past five years, according to research by USA Today. But cardboard recycling has not kept pace. Online retail is a big part of both those trends, Lee told me. When we buy stuff on Amazon and other websites, we not only end up with more boxes being shipped to our houses, we’re also dealing with more boxes-inside-boxes — packaging nesting dolls.
Shoving those boxes into the recycling bin without breaking them down is not a good way to get them recycled. It’s harder for machines to process un-broken-down boxes, Lee said. And those boxes have things like tape and glue and labels attached — all of which are contaminants. (Also, stuffing the bin full of still-3D boxes means there’s less room for other recyclables, which then end up getting put into the trash instead.)
Instead, break boxes apart, pull off the tape, and get out the box cutter. Sorting machines work better if cardboard arrives in pieces no bigger than a standard sheet of paper, Lee said. And you can just cut off the parts with sticky labels and throw them out. Even if that feels like creating more waste, you’re probably really increasing the amount of material that gets recycled.
4) Consume less
Unfortunately, a lot of contamination isn’t caused by you directly. Which makes it hard for you to individually fix. Case in point: labels on plastic bottles. Those exist for a reason, Lee said. Drink companies have figured out that they have to get the right color and appearance on their labels or sales suffer. But the plastic used in shrink wrap or glued labels isn’t always recyclable, which can mean the bottles they’re stuck to are also trash — even if the bottle, itself, could have been recycled.
Companies are concerned about this issue, Lee told me. But there’s often a fundamental mismatch between what recycles best — a plain brown box — and what sells best — a box covered with glossy images.
And this is where we have to remember that our waste problems can’t be solved by recycling alone. Using less and reusing more should come first. For example: Glass can be a big problem in single-stream recycling. Crushed in trucks, the pieces grind into plastic and paper, making those things harder to recycle. Even whole, glass is often unprofitable to haul away and melt and repurpose — some recycling systems won’t even accept it for that reason. But if you buy stuff that comes in glass jars, you can wash those and re-use them at home. In that situation, the case for reusing the container is better than the case for recycling it.