When you throw something out into the recycling bin you probably assume that the item is going to be recycled, maybe even turned into a park bench or a plastic container. Sometimes that is the case but other times, items don’t make it to the recycling process and get sent to landfill all thanks to contamination.

Thankfully, recycling contamination can easily be avoided! But to do that we first need to know what it is and why it is important.

What is Contamination?

If materials are sorted into the wrong bin (placing a plastic water bottle in the paper stream or a coffee cup in a recycling bin) contamination occurs and the whole bag goes to the landfill. Most of the time contamination is linked to “wish-cycling” which in theory is a good thing because we really (I mean really) wish that coffee cups could be recycled or hope they will find their way to where they should be, so we try and recycle it! Unfortunately, this contaminates the whole recycling bin, and everything in it gets taken to the landfill even though there are recyclable materials in that bin. 

This Facebook Post from New Brunswick’s Fundy Region Solid Waste Commission illustrates a Tim Hortons coffee cup breaking down in water for two months. The end result, two pieces that need to be recycled separately.

The other common type of contamination is when materials have traces of food waste on them (like that little bit of peanut butter on the bottom of the container that you just can’t reach with your finger, or is that just me?). A great example is paper smeared with food or grease. Contaminated paper cannot be processed with clean paper as the paper fibres will not separate from the oils at the recycling facilities. 

Also, in a co-mingled recycling bin, if there is food waste on a container, it can transfer onto paper that is also in the bin, leading to cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can be best avoided by rinsing anything with food on it before recycling it!

Why is Contamination a Problem?

So, why does this matter to the future of recycling and why is it important to prevent contamination?

If there is too much contamination in a load of recycling, it becomes more difficult to separate the items that cannot be recycled from the ones that can so all the items get sent to the landfill. It is not entirely impossible to remove the contaminated materials, but it does cost more time and money to do so and because of that, those resources will be used elsewhere.

Most of our recyclable materials have value other than the obvious of benefiting the planet. Recycling gets sent to businesses that repurpose it to make recycled bottles, paper towel, etc. But if there is a contaminant present, that value is either decreased or eliminated, reducing the market value for recycling.

How to Fix the Contamination Problem?

The most effective way to reduce contamination is to clean your materials before recycling them and to understand where materials can be recycled. Of course, I won’t leave you hanging and hope you figure out how to recycle on your own, so let’s look at a couple of the more frequent contaminants found at UHN and learn together how to dispose of them!

  1. Coffee Cups: As much as I know we all wish these were recyclable (especially because coffee shops can’t accept our reusable mugs right now), they must be disposed of in the garbage. This is because of the thin plastic coating inside the cup which cannot be separated from the paper at our recycling facilities.
  2. Paper towel and tissue: A great example of wish-cycling! We ‘wish’ or assume that paper towel and tissue can be recycled because the word paper is right in the name of the material. However, we can compost them which is even better than recycling as it eliminates the resources needed to break down recyclables and re-manufacture them!
  3. Soft plastics (grocery bags, Ziploc bags, produce bags): This one may come as a surprise to most of you like it did to me! At UHN, soft plastics must go in the garbage, unlike in the City of Toronto where they can be recycled. Make sure at home if you can recycle them, they are clean to prevent any contamination from occurring!
  4. Food waste and liquids: Once again, composting comes into play! All liquids must go into the sink and any food waste can go into the compost! But any recyclables covered in food (i.e., yogurt containers, take-out containers, etc.) most likely will be sent straight to the landfill. To reduce this possibility, quickly rinse out the materials and recycle them in the proper bin!
  5. PPE (masks, gloves, face shields): This one is a relatively “new” contaminant for some of us but probably one of the more important ones considering how often they are used. Understandably, it can be confusing to know where to dispose of face masks because of the blue material they consist of. But, like the gloves and face shields, masks are garbage, or they will contaminate the other streams

Learning about where materials go and understanding why will help to divert recyclable materials from entering our landfills and prevent contamination. Eventually overtime, like everything else, recycling will become second nature for you and you will become a recycling expert, giving your recyclables the best chance at a second life! When done correctly, not only are you helping those that handle the recyclables, but also you are helping the planet and who doesn’t love that!

If you want to learn about the different sorting rules at UHN and in your city, consider checking out these direct links: