Garbage Vs. Recyclables: Why What You Put In Your Garbage And Recycling Bins Really Does Matter

As a country, the US has pretty much become used to seeing those big blue "recycle anything" bins that were designed to make the process of recycling much easier. The bins, designed to hold everything from paper to glass and aluminum, take the unpleasant task of sorting the recyclable items out of the consumers' hands and put it on the shoulders of the waste management or recycling companies. It's a good idea, and it can work really well, but only if people are truly just using the bins for recyclable items. Unfortunately, more than just recyclable materials are making their way into recycling facilities, causing all kinds of problems in the waste management process. Here's why what you put into your garbage and recycling bins really does matter.

Contamination of recyclables

If you live in an area that offers free recycling, it can be tempting to toss objects in that don't really belong there, especially if you have to pay for garbage removal by the pound. However, in an ironic twist, these same fees for garbage disposal, which were originally introduced to encourage more efficient recycling, are now causing recycling to be less cost efficient for cities and towns. 

Recycled items are sold to companies that use the materials to create new things, but only if they're uncontaminated by garbage. Examples of contamination include tossing food scraps in with recyclable items, not rinsing out plastic bottles thoroughly and tossing in pizza box bottoms. These all seem harmless enough, but they can have a big impact on the cost of recycling.

Why recycling costs rise 

Recycling is only profitable if the cost to recycle the items is less than the profits made by selling the recycled materials. In an economy where the demand for some recycled materials is already down, waste management companies have to be as frugal as possible in order to see profits. It's impractical to hire extra staff to manually sort through every piece of material in the recycling bin in order to weed out contamination. Not only is it not cost-effective, but it's not effective at preventing contamination, either.

Fluctuations in demand for recycled materials can also compound the problem. Some items, like recycled newspapers, aren't as in demand as they once were. Over the long term, demand could rise, but most cities have to operate strictly on their current budget when it comes to waste management, not plan for fluctuations that may or may not make recycling less expensive.

Why contamination is ultimately everyone's problem

If enough contamination occurs within your local recycling facility, it can prohibit many items from being recycled, and the things that are recycled end up taking more time, effort and money because they must be 'decontaminated,' or the contaminants must be removed from the recycling process. This additional cost puts a strain on local waste management, which could lead to a reduction or even elimination of recycling services in your area. 

With fewer recycling services, landfills would inevitably fill up with the excess items that should have been recycled, and incineration of waste, which is not the ideal method of disposal because of its negative impact on air quality, would also rise. In short, recycling is the best option, even if it doesn't always seem to be the most immediately cost effective one.

What you can do

Individuals have more control over the future of recycling than they realize. If you make a concerted effort to sort recyclable items properly, learn about what can and can't be recycled, utilize your local recycling centers regularly and look for ways to reuse items rather than recycling them, the whole process becomes more cost efficient. That's great news for your town's waste management budget and great news for the planet. 

For more information, you may want to contact a local waste management company or visit