Recycling contamination is a growing problem that is often a result of “wishcycling” or “feel-good recycling,” when people put things in the blue bin that does not belong there, such as pizza boxes or plastic bags, because they believe or hope it can be recycled.
If recycling is contaminated, it’s often re-directed to the landfill or harmful to waste management employees.
Below is a list of some of the top recycling contaminants and troublemakers, according to the San Luis Obispo Integrated Waste Management Authority.
- Plastic bags top the list of things that should not be put in the blue bins in SLO County because the thin plastic can severely damage machinery. If a plastic bag gets stuck in the machines, they must stop the process and torch the plastic until it melts off of the machinery, releasing harmful chemicals. IMWA project director Patti Toews said recycling shouldn’t even go into plastic garbage bags. However, you can take plastic bags to select locations, such as Target and Albertsons, to be recycled.
- Batteries are another danger to recycle. During the recycling center’s process, batteries can spark and harm recycling-center employees. To recycle batteries, you can take them to any retailer that sells household batteries in San Luis Obispo County. Through a IMWA program, they are required to take them back.
- Needles have been a common problem as well. Toews said there have been several times where insulin needles will end up in the recycling bin because they are made of plastic and metal, however, she said they are a non-recyleable hazard.
- Food scraps are also damaging to the recycling process. It is considered a recycling contaminant if food packaging that was not properly washed out or food scraps are thrown into recycling. However, food scraps can avoid the landfill if composted through SLO County’s free Residential Food Waste Program.
- Frozen food boxes are not recyclable food packages. They are lined with a wax or plastic polymer to help insulate the food. The wax makes the box “impossible to recycle,” the SLO IWMA website said. If cleaned properly, plastic frozen food trays can be recycled, but not the boxes.
- Paper cups, typically used for coffee, have a similar wax lining to contain the liquid and therefore cannot be recycled. Yet, the cardboard drink sleeves and plastic lids are recyclable.
- Pizza boxes run a fine line. If there is grease on the pizza box, then it is a contaminant and should be thrown away, but, if the top portion is not greasy, it can be cut off and recycled.
- Dishware is also among the list of frequently recycled non-recyclables. Ceramic is not a recyclable product. And as for glasses, the type of glass used to make dishes does not melt at the same temperature as glass bottles, so it is not processed at recycling plants. Broken glass should never be recycled, as it is a hazard to employees.
- Diapers are another hazard that can end up in the wrong bin. Although disposable diapers contain paper and plastic, they are considered a bio hazard and should not be recycled. Also, the mixed materials could not be separated anyway.
- PVC Garden Hoses and PVC Pipe can also damage machinery. The long hoses are not meant to be recycled and can tangle the recycling process, creating a safety hazard.
Other items that don’t belong in the blue bin include: scrap metal, clothing, paper milk cartons, ice cream containers, paper towels, Styrofoam, light bulbs, shredded paper and electronic devices. However, there are other ways to recycle some of these items.
For more information on alternatives to recycling scrap metal, clothing and other used products in SLO County visit IMWA’s website.