Are you recycling wrong? Experts say contamination creates increased costs

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JASON HAWK
EDITOR

You know that satisfied feeling you get when tossing an item in your green bin?

The truth is, you might not be earning it.

Recycling “contamination” is a big problem for Republic Services and other companies across the nation, according to a State of Recycling presentation delivered Monday to Oberlin city council.

Garbage and unwashed goods are a huge problem when processing the items that come from your recycling bin, said Lori Sprosty.

As recycling coordinator for the city, she estimates the local contamination rate at about 25 percent. That means a quarter of what’s in your bin shouldn’t be there.

And that just adds to the cost of recycling.

As of April 1, Oberlin is swallowing a big rate increase from $27.50 per ton to $57.50 per ton of recycling materials.

With about 1,000 tons of material flowing from Oberlin to Republic Services in a year, that’s expected to increase costs by about $30,000.

That’s steep. But public works director Jeff Baumann said the recycling budget is about $1 million and the city should be able to absorb the change.

Recycling companies are also facing problems abroad. The industry has been reeling since January 2018, when China instituted its National Sword Policy, said Sprosty.

The country placed heavy restrictions on a number of imports and outright banned mixed paper and scrap plastic, largely because so much trash was mixed in with recyclables.

U.S. recyclers have had to search for other countries to take their materials

and costs have jumped, sometimes by as much as 400 percent, over the course of the past year.

That’s meant a shrinking market for recycled goods. Small cities with curbside recycling programs — such as Oberlin — are feeling the pinch.

Some cities throughout the country have cut back on plastic and glass collections or even stopped them because the costs have been thrown so out of whack, said Sprosty.

“Every city wants to be cleaner, greener, and more sustainable and residents want to do the right thing. This is a good thing but also a bad thing — a double-edged sword, if you will,” she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75 percent of waste is recyclable but only close to 34 percent actually gets recycled.

Heavily soiled paper, wax-coated paper, and shredded paper can’t be recycled via curbside programs. Compostable items can contaminate your recycling bin. And single-use plastics and excessive packaging have created a global environmental nightmare, said Sprosty.

“The ocean plastic crisis compels us to address fundamental problems in global waste and recycling practices. Ecosystems all over the Earth have been affected and plastic particles can be found within and throughout the food chain,” she said.

The truth is that recycling levels haven’t improved in the United States in two decades.

Take this statistic, for example: Just nine percent of plastic is recycled in the United States and plastic bags, clothing, and yard waste are the three biggest offenders.

Republic Services plans to roll out its “Know what to throw” recycling campaign over the next few months.

It will ask residents to empty and rinse plastic, glass, and metal containers before they go into the green bin — and make sure to only put recyclable materials in.

Chances are that you’re tossing some problem items in yours.

Lisa Beursken recycling coordinator for Republic Services, said plastic bags are the number one offender for Oberlin.

When in doubt, the smart choice is to toss a questionable item in the garbage rather than the recycling bin, which feels counterintuitive.

“I guess I’ve been recycling wrong the whole time,” said city councilman Ronnie Rimbert. “If people are going to be honest, I’m sure a lot of people have been.”

Beursken said her company plans to conduct 10 waste audits to find what the city’s waste is comprised of, both when college students are in town and when they are not.