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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: Why Does It Matter What I Put In The Bin?

By Recyclebank |

MRFs could sort recyclables all day long, if time and money weren’t factors. But since they are, we should all do our best to recycle right.


Dear Recyclebank: When I don't know if something's recyclable, I usually put it in the recycling bin. I hear that's bad, but I don't understand why. If recycling gets sorted by type of material before being sold off to manufacturers, why does it matter if I put unaccepted things in my recycling bin? Won't they just get sorted out anyway, and possibly even get recycled? –Walt S.

Dear Walt: The simplest answer is that sorting takes time and costs money. Materials coming through the MRF can be sorted by machinery or by hand; usually it’s a combination of both. Either way, unusable materials (called recycling contamination) slow down the sorting process and require the facility to take on the burden of excess waste disposal to landfills, thus making recycling more expensive for everyone.

Much of the issue with contamination goes beyond a simple sort. MRFs are not just separating materials into bales by material type and piles of what should get trashed — they are responsible for creating high quality bales that they can sell to manufacturers. And individual items at a MRF don’t exist in a vacuum from each other: The wrong sort of plastic can affect the final quality — and therefore value — of a whole batch of plastic recycling, or even ruin it entirely. Likewise, an item with food residue can contaminate an entire batch of paper recycling. And where there’s more contamination to sort out, there’s more room for error, more bales with lower value, and more entirely unsellable bales, which usually end up in landfills.

Keep in mind, too, that an item’s material may not be what’s hampering its recyclability; it could be that the local MRF’s machinery can’t process a specific item’s shape or size. For instance, you may look at a plastic bag and think “Plastic’s recyclable, so I’ll put it in my bin,” but thin films get caught in most common MRF machines, causing the process to grind to a halt until they can be removed (costing time and money!).

The moral of the story? Contamination has a real impact on both landfills and pocketbooks. It can be confusing to keep up with what’s recyclable and what isn’t, but it’s important to take personal responsibility for your part in the process. When you’re unsure about something, take the time to double-check your local facility’s guidelines, or err on the side of caution: When in doubt, throw it out.

Are there any recycling requirements that have surprised you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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  • Julie L. 7 months ago
    I think that people should be fined for not recycling! Unfortunately, it is the only way you will be able to get some people to do it. I think that there should be fines ans community service required for littering. It is a sad and terrible habit that is unacceptable for anyone at any time to do.
  • joanna l. 9 months ago
    I think that fines for improper recycling will be what it will take for most people to finally do it right.
  • David J. 9 months ago
    Thanks!
  • Elizah L. 9 months ago
    My number one recycling frustration is the fact that, at least in my city, if glass containers are broken, the recycling facility discards them. Any glass that I place in my recycling bin always starts out being fully intact, but once the recycling truck comes, you ALWAYS hear the materials crashing/shattering as they're dumped into the back of their truck. I realize that time is money and to some degree, the collection process has to be fast, but there's got to be a better way to prevent glass from ultimately being thrown away (simply because it got shattered in transit).
    • Steven C. 9 months ago
      This is another scenario to exemplify man kinds short-sightedness and his love for the all mighty dollar. To quote an American- Indian proverb: "Only when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, will mankind finally realize that you can't drink money."
    • Donna C. 9 months ago
      I've wondered about that too. Before we had the automated truck pick-up, if you had broken glass they asked that it be put into a paper bag.