If you don’t think “recycling” and “contamination” belong in the same sentence, we need to have a talk.
Unfortunately, many of us are tossing the wrong things into the big curbside recycling bins that are designed to keep landfills from filling up so quickly. That can be anything from plastic bags to diapers and grass clippings to pizza boxes (the grease makes the cardboard unredeemable). The industry word for all that is contamination. At best, contamination forces recycling companies to spend time and manpower sorting bad trash from good trash and sending the bad stuff to the landfill. At worst, the whole batch gets the landfill treatment, wasting material that can be recycled and the effort people made trying to do the right thing.
The problem got worse in January, when China – which previously received half of all recyclable material that U.S. companies sent overseas for processing – began enforcing restrictions on which materials it will accept and how much contamination can be included in the mix.
Not to sound too melodramatic, but entire recycling operations may be at risk. In El Paso, for example, city leaders are wrestling with the twin dilemmas of rising contamination rates – from 13 percent to 33 percent in the last decade – and rising costs of sorting it out so the good stuff can still find a market.
Options range from paying more to the private company that collects El Paso’s recyclables, which the city doesn’t want to do, to doing away with household bins and asking people to bring their recyclables to a central location. Many people probably wouldn’t bother, which would mean more trash for the landfill.
We have a lot of decisions in front of us Ellen Smyth Environmental Services Department Director
In the meantime, the city launched a Recycle Right campaign to remind El Pasoans what goes into their blue bins and what doesn’t. And everyone else can do the same.
Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit organization trying to do what it says, has a great website that allows people to look up local recycling programs and guidelines all over the country. Click here to check out your hometown, and pay more attention to what you’re throwing where.