As the headlines make clear, recycling is going through a challenging time around the world and here in the St. Louis area.
China, traditionally the world’s largest buyer of recycled materials, has sharply limited the types and the quality of recyclables it will buy, and Malaysia has started sending plastics back to their country of origin. Decisions such as these result in fewer options for processing recycled materials — and higher costs for everyone, from recycling companies to cities to residents.
More people than ever are focusing on reducing waste and contributing to recycling efforts. However, as recycling participation has climbed, so has the rate of recycling contamination. Recycling contamination occurs when people throw things in their recycling container that don’t belong there. Across the U.S., it’s about 30% of what residents put into their curbside recycling bin.
We know people are trying to do the right thing by recycling their household items. But good intentions can lead to “wish-cycling” — when consumers throw items in recycling bins with the hope that an item can be recycled or reused.
Clothing is one example. Old T-shirts and shoes come into our Hazelwood facility by the hundreds each week. While articles of clothing can be reused, they won’t find a new home by placing them in your recycling bin. Donate them instead.
Other common items like plastic grocery bags, yard debris and disposable diapers are trash and belong in the waste container. Believe it or not, golf balls and pepper spray are among regular items that come through our system. Neither one can be recycled and should be put in the waste bin.
Even when an item is recyclable, like a soup can or plastic ketchup bottle, any remaining food or liquid becomes a problem. When those soiled items are combined with clean recyclables in your recycling container or pressed together in our collection truck, that leftover chicken noodle soup will saturate otherwise good paper and cardboard.
Once this happens, perfectly recyclable items become trash. And these contaminated items ultimately end up in a landfill, which is exactly what consumers are trying to avoid when they recycle.
The good news is, there’s something all of us can do to help, and that’s to educate ourselves on what and how to recycle. As this newspaper’s editorial board noted in March, this is America’s wake-up call.
Our answer is to focus on the basics.
First: Know what to throw. In St. Louis, we like to say, Stick with the Six. We have six primary categories of recyclables: paper, cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs, glass bottles and jars, metal food and beverage cans, and food and beverage cartons.
It may be hard to imagine, but about half of all soda and beer cans are thrown away. Aluminum can be recycled infinitely, and making a can from recycled aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than producing one from raw materials. Some of St. Louis’ recycled aluminum is even used locally.
Second: Remember Empty. Clean. Dry. Don’t allow more than one teaspoon of liquid to remain in a recyclable container. When recyclables are compressed in the truck, leftover food or liquid can ooze onto perfectly good recyclables, ruining them.
Third: Don’t bag it. Never bag or bundle your recyclables. Items should be placed in the container individually. Why? The sorting process at a recycling center happens quickly, and most of what is bagged or bundled ends up in the garbage because sorters cannot see the contents.
The most important thing to keep in mind is this: When in doubt, throw it out. It’s better to throw away an oily salad dressing bottle than to contaminate the rest of the items in your recycling container. This can be a difficult change in mindset, but it really is the best way to keep everything as recyclable as possible.
By following these basic guidelines, you can help do the right thing for the environment and keep the St. Louis community sustainable. For other simple recycling tips, visit RecyclingSimplified.com.
Brent Batliner is general manager of Republic Services Recycling in Hazelwood, Mo.