Recycling Contamination – 4 Steps to Reduce it

recyclable, recycling, recycling contamination, contamination



It seems that there’s an issue with the recycling industry right now.  China has banned 24 types of imported scrap metals and has set a limit on contamination of only 0.5% on everything.  That’s more of an unrealistic goal if you ask me.   Anyways, it’s called National Sword and was implemented this year.  The problem is America has been exporting a third of recyclables with half going to China until now, as overseas buyers tend to be less demanding of what is in their recyclables compared to America.   

China is now demanding cleaner recyclables compared to accepting items at previously acceptable contamination levels.  These contamination levels refer to both non-recyclables being mixed into recyclables and items being still dirty with food or drink still on the item.   Contamination is a big problem here in the US as people and towns/cities don’t always practice good recycling habits.  Material recovery facilities (MRFs) is where the materials are dropped off and aren’t always diligently sorted out.  65% of MRFs is what’s called a single-stream.  This means that everything goes into one bin, therefore causing contamination among the recyclables.  I don’t know, when I was younger the town I grew up in the practiced stringent sorting of recyclables. There’s a bin for plastic, one for paper, one for metals and so forth.   I thought until reading this that all were like that.  Boy am I wrong.   

Impacts of Contamination 

So far, the banning of contaminated products has been minimal.  24 states report minimal issues coming up.  10 states report large impacts, and the last 16 have everything in between.  Stakeholders (everyone who partakes and benefits from it) knows that there are issues that need fixing in this industry.  China is opening everyone’s eyes to the problem who does recycle.  There are now some MFRs that use machinery and conveyor lines to better sort out the materials at a slower pace than before, which is extremely helpful.  Some companies are just dropping China and researching new countries to enter the market or are scaling back amounts and/or types of recyclables they accept.  Some counties are just stopping recycling altogether until they figure out a better process for recycling where they’re located.   

recyclable, recycling, recycling contamination, contamination

4 Steps to Help Keep Recycling 

  1. Stop being a Wish-cycler – This is when you put something into the recycling bin, hoping that it is recyclable.  Use the rules of the town or city where you live as to what’s recycled there.  You can find that information on the town or city website. 
  2. Clean Your Recyclables – Clean the recyclable before putting it into the bin.  If it can’t be cleaned, then just throw it into the regular trash instead of putting into recycling.  Contamination will occur then.    
  3. Demand Use of Recycled-content Products – If we aren’t using products that are made with recyclable materials instead of new materials, the loop isn’t being closed.  Consequently, make sure when you’re buying something make sure to read the label.  Most likely the company has printed what percentage of the materials are recycled.   
  4. Local Government and Companies– Make sure to speak to them about how much stock you put onto recycling and that it’s a priority.  You can also tell companies that you shop at to make products using recycled materials and that can be recycled in all areas.  If recycling is going to be stopped in your area start a petition to keep it going.    


If the change that’s being forced on us indirectly by China is to work, keep active in your communities.  Because of this, it could all come down to where you live as to how important it is to the local community.  Results might ultimately come down to you and companies in your communities to develop and/or keeping programs running.    

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