A practice that first began in the 1960s is going through some changes for many people.
The changes are due primarily to policy shifts in countries thousands of miles away, but the impact is felt on each and every curb in the world where recyclables are set out for pickup.
In past decades, it was likely that all but a few rogue items in the bin would be picked up and recycled.
However, that is changing.
According to Waste Management, the largest processor of residential recycling in North America, 1 in every 4 items placed in a bin today cannot be recycled, either because of its condition or its composition.
Broadmoor Bluffs resident Douglas Sharp carries his recyclables to the curb every other Wednesday.
He places them in a neat pile with cardboard boxes at the bottom and a small green bin full of paper, plastics, and metal on top.
Sharp uses a flyer inside his house to verify that everything he puts in his bin will be accepted.
“What’s on the list goes in. What isn’t on the list, is not,” he said.
After they are collected, his recyclables end up at one of Waste Management’s “Material Recovery Facilities”.
Inside each of those facilities across the state is a complex collaboration of man and machine.
A series of belts and baskets help the workers process 30 tons of material every hour.
The usable materials are then compressed into tight bundles to be sold and shipped.
Unfortunately, the selling part isn’t as easy these days, according to Scott Hutchings, the company’s Director of Government Affairs for this region.
“We’re facing tough times in the recycling industry,” he said.
Much of that has to do with China.
For decades, the US and most of the world sold its paper, plastic, and other recycled materials to China, amounting to millions of tons every year, with a huge increase coming in the early 2000s following the onset of single-stream recycling.
Unfortunately, single-stream recycling also resulted in a much larger amount of trash mixed in with the recyclable materials.
Due to increasing problems with pollution, China cut back on plastic imports in 2017 before banning almost all imports in 2018.
“And so what it has forced us to do is look to other markets. So now, we’re shipping stuff farther, so we’re looking to Vietnam, Mexico, other places like that who have facilities who are willing to accept this material,” says Hutchings.
It didn’t take long, however, for countries like Vietnam and Thailand to set their own limits and restrictions in light of the sudden surge in waste arriving at their ports.
In order to be accepted by other countries, the shipments are now required to be 99.5% free of non-recyclable materials, a significant increase from the previous requirement.
Food contamination alone can render a material non-recyclable.
For example, the classic pizza box can no longer be thrown into a bin, because the bottom half is almost always tainted by grease and cheese.
Instead, consumers are advised to tear off the top of the box, and recycle that portion only.
“It’s clean and dry,” says Sharp when describing his items.
“Clean and dry” is the new standard used by companies when telling customers how to prepare their recyclables.
Sharp acknowledges that it puts more of a burden on consumers.
“That asks a lot of people,” he says.
Unfortunately, too many people haven’t conformed to the new rules as he has, and this is leading to more curbside contamination than ever before.
Most consumers simply aren’t aware of the new standards, despite strong education campaigns by companies like Waste Management.
“Our number one issue every day is contamination, says Hutchings.
“Wishful recycling… garden hoses… all these things that people just think we can figure out, and you really just can’t,” he adds.
On one hand, wishful recycling might make sense, because if there’s a chance something could be recycled, it would seem logical to go ahead and toss it into the green bin.
However, just one contaminated or non-recyclable item could lead to an entire bin being skipped or tossed aside as trash.
“When non-recyclable items end up in your recycling, they have the potential to turn the entire load into trash. All non-recyclable material removed during processing must be transported to a landfill for disposal,” explained Waste Management Communications Specialist Vicki Gomes.
A good rule of thumb is “when in doubt, throw it out.”
Despite a few financially challenging years, Hutchings says recycling is still a viable industry in Colorado.
The future, however, relies largely on cooperation from consumers and a more widespread understanding of what now separates trash from treasure.
For a more complete explanation about which items are recyclable and which are not, Waste Management has put together a special website, www.RecycleOftenRecycleRight.com.
It includes printable flyers that can help remind families and office buildings which materials should skip the bins and head straight to the trash.
(NOTE: The list of recyclable items can vary from company to company, so it’s best to check with your particular service to verify what it will accept.)