Recycling 101: Why “wish-cycling” is doing more harm than good

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind- Recently, the City of Carmel put out a message to their residents after noticing a high percentage of the wrong stuff making its way into the recycling bin.

“Our residents demand recycling and they want to do it right,” said Sue Maki with the City of Carmel Utilities. “So we just try to get that message out so their items are recycled properly.”

As it turns out, the City of Carmel is not alone. In fact, it happens so often recycling companies even have a term for it. They call it “wish-cycling.”

“We’re seeing a lot of what we call ‘wish-cycling’ or ‘hope-cycling,” said Craig Lutz, Municipal Services Manager for Republic Services. “It’s causing that contamination to go higher and higher.”

By recycling as much as you can, you think you’re helping the environment. However, trying to recycle the wrong thing can do more harm than good.

Everything you recycle needs to be individually sorted by human hands and an assembly line of machines. For the workers, it’s a tough job that requires a good eye and fast hands.

“They’re doing 40-50 picks a minute of different types of material that should not go through,” Lutz said.

The advent of single-stream recycling has increased the amount that’s being recycled, but it’s also increased the amount of junk coming in.

“We got a backpack,” Lutz said as he rummaged through a new load being dropped off at his facility. “Unfortunately a backpack came through that should not be in a single stream load.”

Lutz sees a lot of contamination in what’s being recycled and lately, it’s getting out of hand. The contamination is creating way more work and much larger costs for recycling companies.

“What we’re seeing on average is anywhere from 35% to even 40%,” Lutz said of the contamination level. “Sometimes even higher.”

That junk not only damages machines, it can also ruin the sorted material before it’s sent off to be recycled. If the final quality after sorting isn’t good enough to be recycled, it ends up in the trash.

Right now in the industry, each load of sorted material has to be at 0.5% or less contamination to be accepted.

“If we get a load that’s rejected, then it’s on that processor to own that cost. That transportation cost back in and also that disposal cost,” Lutz said. “It’s really really damaging to the bottom lines and that cost in our recycling programs.”

99.5% leaves little room for mistakes during the sorting process. Simple changes to what you recycle can make a big difference in helping make sure everything you put in the recycle bin stays out of the landfill. It also will make sure recycling remains in business for the future.

“If we can do that right and think of just your simple basics, I think we’ve got a good chance of keeping these programs viable now and also into the future,” Lutz said.

First, if recycling food or beverage containers, make sure it’s empty and rinsed out. Even things like a plastic jar of peanut butter (perfectly fine to recycle), need to be rinsed out so the food doesn’t contaminate the load.

Another common mistake is when people bag all their recyclables in a trash bag or grocery bag. In order to be recycled, someone would have to catch it before it makes it’s way to a sorting machine and take the time to physically cut the bag open. Lutz says it’s best to put all your loose items directly into the recycling bin.

“The system and the technology can recycle and sort the material in its own commodity line, but we need the material to be loose,” Lutz said. “Let the plant and let the technology do the sorting for us.”

For more information on what can and cannot be recycled, click HERE.

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