Single-stream recycling, the simple act of dumping all of your recyclables into one bin, has become one of the most common recycling methods in the US.
Public participation has increased due to the ease of single-stream bins, but the chances for contamination have skyrocketed. Reducing contamination is critical to making our recycling system effective and sustainable. Unfortunately, contamination can occur anywhere in the recycling journey: Broken glass and food or liquid residues can ruin paper bales. Likewise, the wrong types of plastic and food/liquid residues can spoil plastic bales. These items then become unrecyclable and likely to end up in landfills or incinerators, or they may be sold to countries with lower contamination standards.
1. Your curbside bin is where you have the most control over reducing contamination (click the image to see our 9 steps for how to help). Toss in a coated paper receipt or #5 plastic bottle, a dirty aluminum can, or a handful of broken glass, and you can contaminate entire batches of recycling.
2. Waste management trucks scoop up your recyclables, where they remain commingled and are tossed in with all your neighbor's bin contents. Glass may break, posing risk to recycling workers, and food and liquid residue can ruin batches of recyclables.
3. The materials then arrive at a waste transfer station if you live in a larger city, which is like a pit stop for waste to be sorted into what goes to a landfill and what can be taken to a composting or recycling facility (depending on what your community offers.)
Transfer stations offer another opportunity for glass to break or food and liquid to contaminate paper.
4. At last, the recyclables arrive at a materials recovery facility (MRF), where they are pre-sorted by hand. Mechanized screens seperate items by weight and shape, and powerful magnets sort aluminum out. Each type of recyclable is packaged into bales, which are sent on to facilities specializing in recycling those particular materials.
These facilities are where the contamination occurring at any point on the recycling journey takes effect. Broken glass may make its way into paper or plastic bales, making them unfit to recycle. And food or liquid can spoil entire bales of paper.
Mainstream waste-management companies will often landfill or incinerate dirty glass or plastic, as well as contaminated bales of recycling. It’s up to us to maximize recycling. Wash and dry your recyclables, and don’t “wish-cycle”!
While most see recycling as a win for the environment, communities of color across the US are most often hosts to recycling facilities and transfer stations - and have to live with the resulting truck traffic and pollution.
Food waste is the single largest
component of waste headed into US
landfills, at 18 percent. Instead, it could
be turned into rich compost to make
the soil healthier and able to sequester
more carbon. Check out Green America’s best
5. Be mindful about E-Waste
Many “recyclers” send electronic
waste to developing countries, where it’s
dismantled by hand, harming workers and
the environment. Certified E-Stewards
recyclers ensure that your electronics
are recycled responsibly. Find one near
you at e-stewards.org.
Pressure corporations to use less
packaging, make their packaging easily
recyclable, and take back hard-to-recycle
packaging and products. See p. 10 for ways
shareholders are using their power, and
encourage your members of Congress to
support extended producer responsibility
laws at the state and federal level.
Public-relations expert James Hoggan sits down with GA and discusses his new book I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up, an exploration of how adversarial rhetoric and polarization is stifling debate and thwarting society's ability to solve our collective problems.