Despite what you may have heard in the national news over the last few years, the recycling industry is alive and well, catering to growing market demands for recycled content products and creating ever more domestic outlets. However, in order to do that, we have to reduce and eliminate contamination in the recycling bin.
Contamination begins at the curb, and it refers to anything that does not belong in your recycling bin. For the most part, the U.S. has invested in single sort technology, where consumers place all recyclables in one bin without sorting. Those materials later get sorted at a materials recovery facility (MRF). When you toss your wine bottle and cereal boxes into a recycling bin, someone down the line sorts through it by hand on a conveyor belt, pulling out the obvious things that don’t belong there. Those materials then go through a mechanical sorting process, using magnets, blowers and other Willy Wonka-esque magic to separate your water bottles from your magazines.
Follow these steps to contribute to a clean recycling stream:
1. Get a list of recyclable materials in your area and keep it visible so you can easily refer to it. If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t belong in the bin. There’s no gray area.
2. Vermont has a mandatory recycling law that requires six categories of materials be recycled.
- rigid plastics (yogurt cups or plastic packaging, as opposed plastic films and bags)
- corrugated cardboard (not waxed)
- steel (food-grade cans)
- aluminum (cans, pie pans, aluminum foil if clean, dry and balled up to the size of a tennis ball or larger).
These materials are common throughout New England, but details vary by region. I cannot stress the importance of finding out the list in your own region.
3. Know the rules: Both humans and machinery sort materials once they reach the MRF. A few simple rules make the whole system work:
- Rinse food containers. No need to sterilize, but any container that has had food in it should be empty, rinsed and dry.
- Know the 2 by 2 rule. Anything smaller than 2 inches by 2 inches or larger than 2 feet x 2 feet cannot go into your blue bin. Small items fall between the cracks at the MRF, and the larger items are too large for efficient sorting on the conveyor belt.
- No tanglers. Tanglers like plastic bags, textiles and garden hoses cause the MRF to shut down for an hour or more at a time because they tangle up machinery. Imagine the loss of time and money involved in shutting down a factory for a full hour every day, plus the dangerous job of having to climb inside the sorting machine to pull out someone’s tee-shirt and Walmart bag.
- (Don’t) follow the numbers: Just because you see a chasing arrow with a number inside does not mean it’s recyclable. Check local guidelines. Think of frozen food bags or Styrofoam – neither is recyclable in your blue bin, but both feature a recycling symbol.
- Recycling is a business. Blue bin recyclables are the raw materials that eventually get remanufactured into new products. Nobody’s going to sort your cardboard and wine bottles if there isn’t an economic incentive. In order to keep recycling viable, the economics have to work. In order for the economics to work, recyclables need to be free of contamination (see #1).
- Buy recycled content when possible. Contribute to making recycling work by buying products made from post-consumer recycled content.
4. Re-use or opt out. Recycling is better than landfilling, but it’s not as good as not producing waste in the first place. The best solution is to buy less, use less, and reuse what you have when possible. A full 30 percent of landfilled materials in Vermont consists of single-use disposables that cannot be recycled. As a first step, consider giving up anything disposable in favor of something reusable; or buy second hand and avoid packaging.
Finally, if you find yourself stuck with an over-packaged product, or materials that don’t have a good disposal option, reach out to the retailer or manufacturer and let them know how you feel about it. Ultimately, the best way to decrease contamination in recycling is to decrease the amount of non-recyclable materials coming at us through packaging and disposables. Please note that this article should not replace your local recycling guidelines. Check with your regional Solid Waste Management organization to get the most up- to-date information for your area.
Cassandra Hemenway is the Outreach & Education Manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.
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