Photo: Mark Mulligan /Staff Photographer
Headline after headline, the news is filled with stories about the recycling crisis in the United States. Since China imposed restrictions on imports of mixed paper and other recyclable materials, the impact has been felt by American communities, both small and large.
The good news is that more people than ever are recycling and want to reduce the amount of waste they are creating. While participation rates have climbed, however, so has the rate of recycling contamination. Recycling contamination occurs when people throw things in their recycling containers that don’t belong there.
In our San Antonio communities, about 30 percent of what residents put into curbside recycling is trash.
We know people have the best intentions and are trying to do the right thing by recycling their household items. But good intentions can lead to “wish-cycling” — when consumers throw items in recycling bins with the hope that an item can be recycled or reused.
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Clothing is an example — old T-shirts can be reused, but they won’t find a new home by placing them in your recycling bin. Donate them instead. Other common items such as plastic grocery bags, yard debris and disposable diapers are trash and belong in the waste container.
Even when an item is recyclable, like a soup can or plastic ketchup bottle, any remaining food or liquid becomes a problem. When those soiled items are combined with clean recyclables in the truck, that leftover chicken noodle soup will saturate otherwise good paper and cardboard.
Once this happens, perfectly recyclable items become trash. And these contaminated items ultimately end up in a landfill, which is exactly what consumers are trying to avoid when they recycle. Why does this matter?
China’s restrictions have illuminated the need to repair our recycling system. San Antonians want to know what they can do now, and the answer is to focus on the basics.
First: Know what to throw. There are four primary categories of recyclables: paper and cardboard, metal cans, plastic bottles and jugs, and glass. Make sure to recycle cans. Despite being one of the easiest items to recycle, about half of all soda and beer cans are thrown away. Also, remember to keep the caps on bottles and jugs.
Second: Empty. Clean. Dry. Don’t allow more than one teaspoon of liquid to remain in a recyclable container. When recyclables are compressed in the truck, leftover food or liquid can ooze onto perfectly good recyclables, ruining them.
Third: Don’t bag it. Never bag or bundle your recyclables. Items should be placed in the container individually. Why? The sorting process at a recycling center happens quickly, and most of what is bagged or bundled ends up in the garbage because sorters cannot see the contents.
The most important thing to keep in mind is this: When in doubt, throw it out. It’s better to throw away a greasy pizza box (Editor’s note: In San Antonio, you can place pizza boxes in the green organics bin.) than to contaminate the rest of the items in your recycling container. This can be a difficult change in mindset, but it really is the best way to keep everything as recyclable as possible.
By following these basic guidelines, you can help do the right thing for the environment and keep the San Antonio community sustainable. For other simple recycling tips, visit the website RecyclingSimplified.com.
Ryan Whiteside is general manager of Republic Services in San Antonio. Whiteside has spent seven years with Republic Services, previously serving as division sales manager and area sales director.