The Battle Against Recycling Contamination is Everyone’s Battle
For all the years I’ve worked in the recycling business for Waste Management, I can tell you that the global challenges our industry is facing these days are without precedent.
Simply put, many of the items we all want to recycle are getting hard to market economically. This impacts our business, the environment and the recycling industry as a whole.
To explain what’s happening, you really need to go back to the habits we’ve all formed over the years inside our households. Many of us grew up with a different kind of recycling program than we have today. Back in the day, we separated items at the curb each week, making it easier to process paper, aluminum and plastics into different material streams. All the right things were being recycled.
Then in the early 2000s, recycling changed with the arrival of single-stream. Through this process, residents and businesses could put all of their recyclables into a single bin or cart, and those items would then be separated at a sorting facility. Over a short period of time, thanks to the convenience of single-stream, more people began to participate and recycling rates soared to their highest levels. Households were recycling more, and as a result, we were processing millions of tons more for the betterment of our communities and environment. Recycling had entered its boom years.
At the same time, products and packaging were becoming more complex. For example, think about the difference in weight of a plastic bottle today versus 15 years ago. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but today’s bottles are a lot thinner and lighter than they used to be. We’ve also seen that a wider variety of plastics are also being used to package the everyday items we purchase.
This complexity has in many ways altered consumers’ understanding of what they think is recyclable. More and more, non-recyclables are finding their way into single-stream containers – things like plastic bags, organic matter (food, liquid and yard waste), rubber hoses, wires and low-grade plastics. Contamination rates – or the percentage of trash mixed with recyclables – has steadily climbed over the years.