For the recycling industry, there’s good news and bad news when it comes to consumers’ household recycling habits. The good news is that more households than ever have access to – and participate in – curbside and drop-off recycling programs.
According to a 2016 report from the Recycling Partnership, curbside programs currently serve more than half of the US population. That figure reaches close to 90 percent when drop-off recycling programs are included.
The bad news is that even though more people are recycling, they’re not always doing it correctly. Whether due to confusion or a reliance on outdated information, consumers tend to make a number of common recycling mistakes. Unfortunately, these mistakes can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of recycling programs.
Here are six of the biggest mistakes you’ll want to make sure watch out for in your household:
Not separating materials when you’re supposed to.
Is your curbside recycling program single-stream or dual-stream? If you have no idea, you’re not alone. Many household consumers don’t know the finer details of their local programs.
However, it’s very important to be aware of the difference between single and dual-stream. That will tell you whether you need to keep different types of recyclable materials separate (dual-stream), or whether you can throw them all in the same bin (single-stream).
If you’re always mixing your recyclables together but you’re served by a dual-stream program, then you’re making the sorting process much more complicated. Consequently, the process becomes much more time-consuming and expensive for your local recycling facility.
Including non-recyclable glass.
A wine bottle and a lightbulb may both be made out of glass, but only one of those items can be put in your household recycling bin. If you guessed the wine bottle, then good for you!
Translucent bottles and jars, including colored glass like wine and beer bottles, are all made of a type of glass that can be processed by local recycling facilities. However, items such as window glass, laboratory glassware, glass and Pyrex dishes, and lightbulbs have different chemical compositions and different melting points than container glass. This makes it impossible to process these items together.
Not cleaning or rinsing items.
It’s important to remember that recycling isn’t the same as garbage. Dirty items have no place in your recycling bin. Anything that can be cleaned or rinsed before being recycled, should be.
This might seem like an unnecessary step. However, doing so helps ensure that the material that results after recyclables are processed is of the highest possible quality.
Cleaning and rinsing items also prevents other items in the bin from becoming contaminated. For example, leftover liquid from unrinsed beverage bottles can soak into paper or cardboard, making those items more difficult to process.
Including food-contaminated items.
Don’t forget that “dirty items” include anything that may have become contaminated by grease or other food scraps that can’t be washed off. The most common offender here is the humble pizza box.
While the cardboard that the pizza box is made from is recyclable, it can’t be recycled if it’s coated in cheese grease. The same goes for any other recyclable food or beverage container.
Fortunately, there are a couple of alternatives to just throwing the item in the garbage. If the grease is confined to one or two isolated spots, simply cut them out and recycle the rest of the clean container.
Alternatively, if your community offers compost or food waste pickup, that program may accept your pizza box or other compostable food containers.
Putting plastic bags in your household recycling bin.
There is, unfortunately, a great deal of consumer confusion about what to do with plastic bags. It’s not difficult to see how this confusion has arisen.
Plastic bags are recyclable, but they are not typically accepted by curbside recycling programs. This is because they are very difficult to sort and clean in conjunction with other plastic materials.
The best thing to do with plastic bags is to find a local retailer that accepts them for recycling. Many grocery stores today offer large collection bins where customers can bring their used plastic bags.
Unfortunately, this often proves to be a bit too much effort for most consumers. This is why, of the 500 plastic bags that the average American uses each year, more than 99 percent end up in the landfill. Alternatively, consumers can make the switch to reusable bags and avoid the issue of recycling plastic bags entirely.
Including loose shredded paper.
Sometimes it’s the size of an item, rather than its composition, that makes it difficult to recycle. Shredded papers, for example, are extremely difficult for recyclers to handle. This is because the pieces are so small that they quite literally fall through the cracks of the machines responsible for sorting and processing.
However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to recycle shredded paper. Most facilities will accepted shredded paper if it’s contained in a paper bag or large recyclable envelope.