Contamination of Recyclable Materials and Trash
Every type of trash has its own disposal stream designed to either recycle the material or send it for storage in a landfill. In that context, contamination refers to the improper sorting of these materials once they are thrown away. When individuals recycle at home, contamination can occur when non-recyclable materials are placed in a curbside recycling bin, or when recyclable materials are not properly sorted per local collection guidelines.
Main Types of Waste Disposal Streams
For the consumer recycling at home, waste is generally sorted into 3 different streams: trash, recycling, and organic waste. Some communities require further sorting of recyclable materials. Then, recyclable waste is sent to a facility where it will be further separated, prepared, and sold to manufacturers who will process the materials into new forms. Each of the following materials requires unique processes for recycling: metal, glass, plastic, paper, and organic waste like food and plant clippings.
Why Improper Waste Disposal Matters
When viable recyclable materials are not sorted correctly, they will usually end up at a landfill. If the landfill facility does not reclaim recyclables already buried in the landfill (an emerging trend), or if it is not a facility that converts waste to energy, much of the commercial and practical value of this waste will be lost. Furthermore, precious space will be unnecessarily taken up at the landfill. Waste like paper and fiber products that had the potential to be recycled will instead decompose anaerobically, producing the strong greenhouse gas methane.
When non-recyclables end up in the recycling stream (i.e. food waste, moisture), they can potentially ruin the quality of the recyclable goods (i.e. paper). Additional sorting time and damage to otherwise valuable waste products will harm the overall efficiency of the process, creating additional greenhouse gas emissions, incurring increased spending, and driving down the value of recycling overall.
Contamination of waste disposal streams is such a serious issue that many regions have begun to pass laws prohibiting improper sorting. Violation, even accidental, could result in a fine.
How to Dispose of Trash and Recyclables Properly
Consumers are often given a choice of how to dispose of their trash, such as at a cafeteria or business that offers multiple trash bins, color-coded for different kinds of materials. Home trash bins provided by the city are similarly separated. If no option seems appropriate, a local recycling drop-off station may be the best choice, though transportation to the station will incur other costs and emissions.