5 Simple Steps for Reducing Recycling Contamination at the Point of Collection

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So What is Recycling Contamination?

Recycling contamination is the result of cross-contamination of recycling streams, such as plastics mixed with paper and cardboard, and/or trash mixed with either of the above. Difficult and often deemed impossible to process at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), they are treated as trash and redirected to landfill sites. The end result of this can heavily impact diversion targets, as a too high proportion of contaminated materials can lead to whole lorry-loads of recycling being rejected and sent to landfill.

Policy changes have highlighted flaws

While zero-waste initiatives, adopted by a progressive number of major U.S. cities, are a demonstration of efforts to reduce the generation of waste and develop regional-focused recycling programs serving local communities, on a more national scale, the U.S. had relied heavily on exporting waste materials. However, recent policy changes enforced in 2018 have led to a broad reexamination of domestic recycling in the US.

Supporting a target of a 50% recycling rate by 2030, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ‘National Recycling Strategy: Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy’, published in November 2021, is the first of its kind to be integrated nationwide. Reducing recycling contamination at the point of collection is regarded as central to achieving these targets.

Reducing levels of recycling contamination from households in the U.S can be complex to address with contributing factors often varying between regions due to the differing regulations involved in municipal recycling systems. All the same, contamination creates systemic issues at all stages of the recycling journey, from the point of collection all the way through to processing at a MRF.

What are the Main Contributors?

Plastic bags require specific disposal

Contaminants like plastic bags are a frequent offender, and can become entangled and damage recycling machines, while hazardous waste can lead to serious health and safety risks for the workforce involved. Contamination of recyclables additionally costs municipalities in extra disposal fees, which are typically gathered from taxpayers, risking the successful operation of recycling infrastructure. Increased collection and reprocessing costs then effectively reduce the value of the collected materials.

Before outlining the 5 effective steps that can reduce recycling contamination at the point of collection, keep a MRF operating efficiently and effectively aid municipal recycling goals, it is a useful practice to understand and define the main contributors for contamination among households. Developing an awareness of frequently offending contaminants, as well their level of local impact, can help establish effective solutions to mitigate them specifically.


Changing Consumer Habits

Lack of Awareness and Understanding

5 Effective Steps for Reducing Contamination

1. Carry Out a Waste Audit

2. Develop Markets to Increase Accepted Materials

3. Develop Robust Policies and Regulations

4. Provide Clear Communication Over Accepted Materials

5. Provide a Dedicated System for Recyclables and Hazardous Items

Providing a Summary

Prioritize reuse over recycle

Ultimately, the primary aim of any recycling system is full engagement from target audiences, drawn from clear communication and effective systems to increase engagement and inform good practice. Key to developing zero-waste pathways, however, are efforts to generate less volumes of waste from the outset. Encouraging the reuse of materials and a more pragmatic approach to resource efficiency is vital. Recycling then enables solutions to ensure materials are able to be placed back into circulation.

At face value, reducing recycling contamination at the point of collection can seem like a daunting concept. Target audiences will often involve a diverse level of incentive, knowledge, and circumstances depending on their specific residential environment. However, the 5 effective steps explored here, when utilized effectively, help to raise awareness among households and residents, inform best practices when looking to establish larger waste and recycling programs, and reduce recycling contamination at the point of collection.