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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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  • Donna D. 7 months ago
    No many times our city tells people not to put plastic bags in their bins, I see each week many people bagging their recyclables in white trash bags and putting in their bin. I don't get how hard it is to understand the no plastic bags in bin guideline.
  • Steven S. 7 months ago
    Posted Monday, September 27,2021
  • randy f. 2 years ago
    >>RE:Are there any recycling requirements that have surprised you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!>>

    WASTE MANAGEMENT now refuses to take clean cardboard unless it is inside the can, mostly in small pieces. We get a lot of boxes so we would (paper) bag newsprint, ads, and junkmail plus cut and fold clean cardboard, laying against can. No problems . . .

    REcently, we had a LOT of boxes so I cut them and folded and laid them atop the can and as usual, paper separately. Waste Management THREW all my hard work into the landfill trash pile we put out on the other side of the driveway ~ not taking any board. Calling office, was told it needs to fit IN can, not aside, atop or any other preposition! Hauling to a cardboard drop-off box is one of the only other options unless I want to to be like Sweeney Todd but slaughtering boxes instead.

    Wish unilateral decisions would be made and adhered to across a county or state OR country.
  • tommy b. 3 years ago
  • Erika O. 4 years ago
    I have heard so many people and friends telling me that plastic is plastic, they didn't know about the numbers!!! Since I found this website has been so helpful!! I have learned so much and share with my family and friends, even my boss who is an engineer didn't know about the numbers!! Example in one of the recycling center only receives 1 & 2, so I used to throw away the 3 -7 ... But now I will go once a month to a different one, where they accept 1-5 & 7 ... Maybe I have much time on my hands, but I think it's my obligation do something for my Mother Earth.
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