Recycling: Contaminated 

By Katy Greco, Deputy Editor of GLOBUS

Simply put, when it comes to recycling, contamination is when the wrong stuff goes in the wrong bin. This typically involves people putting food waste and nonrecyclables in their household recycling bin. And it’s a massive problem. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), from 2019 to 2020, more than half a million tonnes of household recycling had to be rejected due to contamination. What’s more, 97% of rejected recycling ends up in landfills or in the incinerator. This ultimately means that around 500,000 tonnes of perfectly recyclable waste are lost each year due to contamination. And this isn’t just an environmental issue either – it’s an economic one. The LGA reports that for every tonne of rejected household recycling, it costs an additional £93 to correctly dispose of the waste. This amounts to almost £49 million each year. So, not only is contaminated recycling a burden on the environment, but it’s also a burden on the taxpayer’s wallet.     

The key thing to note is that even just a few people’s shoddy recycling can mean streets worth of otherwise impeccable recycling ends up contaminated and thus destined for the landfill.  

Most people care about recycling and want to be better at it – so how can you play your part in fixing the problem? Well, when it comes to contamination, there are three main types to watch of for: 1) nonrecyclables, 2) non-targeted recyclables, and 3) dirty recyclables.  

1) Nonrecyclable contamination:  

As you can probably guess, nonrecyclable contamination occurs when nonrecyclable materials are thrown into the recycling bin – salad bags, sicky notes, nappies, receipts, Pringles tubes, and tissues are among the usual suspects for this type of contamination! A major issue contributing to nonrecyclable contamination is aspirational recycling (also known as ‘wishcycling’), which is basically when we recycle something because we feel like it could, or should, be recyclable. Aspirational recycling is something that many of us are guilty of – you’ve just finished your lunch and you’re making your way to the bin when suddenly you realise that you’re not sure whether that plastic crisp packet is recyclable… You’re filled with dread at the sight of the general waste bin – the prospect of contributing to the landfill… I mean, it’s made of plastic and plastic is recyclable, so it’s probably fine to put in the recycling bin, right? NO! Crisp packets cannot be recycled with the general plastic recycling and are actually a major source of contamination. Instead, they must go in the waste bin, or be recycled at a TerraCycle drop-off point (we actually have crisp packet recycling drop-off points on campus. There’s one in the SU outside the Terrace Bar, and others scattered around various departments – just look for the orange-top bins!).  

To combat nonrecyclable contamination (and wishcycling) the most important things you can do are: 

  • Check the packaging: most packaging will have some guidance on how to recycle/dispose of it…. 
  • But if that fails, plastics often have a little number in recycle symbol, called a resin code, what kind of plastic it is – once armed with this information, a quick search for your local council’s recycling scheme should tell you which numbers they accept! 
  • However, if that’s not possible, a general rule of thumb is that numbers 1 and 2 are widely recycled, 4 and 5 are generally recyclable (although some local authorities don’t accept them so be careful!), and numbers 3, 6, and 7 are much harder to recycle (so are less likely to be accepted in general plastic recycling). To learn more about resin codes and how to recycle different types of plastic, see here
  • Check your papers and carboards! There’s a tendency to assume that all carboard and paper is recyclable but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Some cardboards are lined with plastic or other materials (eg. shiny toothpaste boxes, disposable coffee cups, and some frozen food boxes) which means they can’t be recycled, and therefore pose a contamination risk. Highly dyed papers, anything with glitter (eg. greetings cards), and sticky notes are also generally a no-go. 
  • If you’re on campus, the sustainability team has an A-Z guide on where to recycle a myriad of items, which you can check out here

About now is where I should probably espouse the old sustainability adage “if in doubt, leave it out”, but if like me you can’t deal with the guilt of trashing something that MIGHT be recyclable, the better thing to do is to save it and search up any local schemes (eg. see TerraCycle) – you’ll find a whole world of oddly specific recycling programmes! 

2) Non-targeted recyclable contamination 

Non-targeted recyclable contamination refers to when recyclable material is put in the wrong recycling bin – for example, when plastic bottles end up disposed in the paper/card recycling. However, the line between nonrecyclable contamination and non-targeted recyclable contamination is a little blurry because many forms of waste can actually be recycled, just not via kerbside collection. For example, many types of electrical equipment (from mobile phones to lawnmowers!) are highly recyclable but must be disposed of at specific drop-off points, and TerraCycle has designated recycling schemes for a huge variety of otherwise non-kerbside recyclable household waste (Pringles tubes, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, toothpaste tubes, and pet food pouches, just to name a few!). Another major non-targeted contaminant is the notorious plastic bag. Plastic bags are recyclable but cannot (unless otherwise stated by your local recycling authority) be recycled via kerbside collection. Instead, they must be disposed of at a plastic bag recycling drop-off point (these can be found in most supermarkets – eg., the Asda stores in Coventry and Leamington Spa). The reason for this is that they get tangled in machinery which can essentially shut down a recycling facility. An important implication of this is that you should NOT bag your recycling. Instead, leave it loose in your recycling box! 

There’s loads of useful information on the Warwickshire County Council website on what recycling your local drop-off centre accepts – the Princes Drive Recycling Centre in Leamington Spa accepts a huge range of items from mobile phones and mattresses to cooking oil and timber!   

The sustainability team has also collated a useful list of where to recycle those highly recyclable items that aren’t accepted by kerbside collection. For example, you can recycle plastic bags and batteries at Asda (both at the Coventry and Leamington Spa stores), pens and other stationary at Ryman (Coventry and Leamington Spa), and much more!  

3) Dirty recycling  

The third type of contamination, dirty recycling, is also pretty self-explanatory. Basically, if that jam jar is still covered in jam, or that milk bottle is not completely empty, it has the potential to doom your recycling to the landfill. Why? Well partly because it’s pretty gross (as someone who literally picked out eggshells and rotten ham from my flat’s recycling, I can 100% confirm this) and dangerous for recycling workers to sort through, and partly because mouldy food is not an ideal material to include in new packaging and products made of recycled material. To avoid this kind of contamination, make sure to rinse out any food debris! If the item can’t be washed (eg. because it’s made of carboard) then you have to use your judgement: a pizza box that has just a smudge of grease, should be fine to put in the recycling, but if it’s sopping and smeared with cheese then it should go in the waste bin or be composted. 

So, what now….? 

Ultimately the best solution to our waste problem is to not generate it in the first place. However, for many of us, going completely waste-free is not easy.  Needless to say, recycling isn’t always easy either, and sometimes it’s downright frustrating. But it’s still a hugely important aspect of sustainability, so we need to get it right. The good news is that simply being aware of the pitfalls of recycling contamination will help you become a better recycler!  

So go forth, my eco warrior! Go recycle that box and spread your newfound wisdom!  

Header image by Jilbert Ebrahimi via Unsplash 

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