Resilient Recycler: What's in Your Cart?
A closer look at contamination at the West Vancouver Materials Recovery Center
by Eric Stricker
What are people trying to recycle? How can we do a better job of recycling?
Annually, Clark County Solid Waste organizes a hands-on study to see what people are trying to recycle. The residual is all of the material that is left over after going down the sort line where recyclables are pulled off and sorted. This year, staff and volunteers carefully sorted through samples that were pulled from both single family and multi-family homes. Some items in the residual were missed by the sorting system because they were too small, broken down, or covered with gunk that makes them unrecyclable while other materials should have never been put in the recycling to begin with. The results from the study were fascinating - not to mention a bit messy!
Items that are dirty from food or other gunk are not recyclable and can contaminate other recyclables such as paper. Paper is a valuable resource, but placing any wet or dirty stuff in the recycling cart or leaving the cart open in rainy weather can contaminate the paper and make it not recyclable. Keep it EMPTY, CLEAN and DRY. An alternative to throwing away dirty paper or food waste is to compost it!
In a lot of cases, we came upon material that simply isn't recyclable such as clothing. Most people think that items placed in the cart will find a place to be recycled, but instead, these materials cause issues at the sorting facility and can contaminate materials that are recyclable causing more to go to the landfill. Plastic film, bags, and wraps cause the sort line to shut down and the tangled material has to be cut out and removed by hand. Some materials, such as wood or block foam, can be recycled at our waste facilities, but they must be dropped off separately from the mixed recycling. DO NOT place these items in your curbside recycling bin - they will not be recycled.
In a few cases, we had to be extra careful when sorting through piles of recycling, as there were items that should never be there! The biggest risk was from medical waste and sharps, such as needles, which should always be disposed of at secure locations for medical waste. Another hazard is glass items placed in the mixed recycling cart. When placed in Big Blue or the mixed recycling, glass is never captured for recycling; please place glass on the side in the separate glass recycling bin if you want it recycled otherwise it throw it in the trash or find another purpose for it.
Trash it or Repurpose it if it's not Recyclable
There were a variety of other things that do not belong in the recycling cart! Plenty of food scraps, clothing, toys, electronics, and so much more. Lots of these items could have been reused, composted, or recycled beyond the curb, but these materials cause contamination when placed in the mixed curbside recycling. We even found things like pet waste and dirty diapers! Trash is trash. We give you permission to throw away those dirty diapers or find alternatives to reduce waste. But please do not recycle trash!
In a 2017 cart tagging study to identify contaminants in Clark County residential recycling, the highest contaminants were (1) non-recyclable hard plastic packaging, (2) plastic bags and wrap, and (3) to-go cups. When looking at all carts in the study, about 30% had no contaminants! Let's raise that number with Recycling Done Right!
3 Simple Steps to Recycling Done Right in Clark County
1. Mixed Recycling: (empty, clean and dry) Paper and Cardboard / Plastic Bottles, Tubs, and Jugs / Metal Cans and Tins
2. Always recycle Glass Bottles and Jars in a separate bin
3. NO plastic bags/wrap, NO shredded paper and NO to-go cups or containers
When in doubt, throw it out, or check RecyclingA-Z.com.