As new restrictions on recyclables going to China are disrupting recycling markets, we are working with local governments and the recycling industry to develop a more resilient system. Central to these efforts are the search for domestic recycling markets and cutting contamination in Washington's recycling stream.
What is recycling contamination, and why is it a problem?
Any item that does not belong in the recycling process is a contaminant. Contamination occurs when non-recyclable material winds up in the recycling stream, or when a recycling bale ends up with the wrong kind of recyclable.
If plastic bags or lids are mixed with paper, they contaminate the paper and reduce its value. Likewise, if glass is placed in with other recyclables, it can break and contaminate the rest of the material.
Contamination is a serious issue — it reduces efficiency, destroys value, and leads to greater waste. Ecology and its partners have been tackling issues related to contamination for several years, with a particular focus on residential commingled recycling
(the single bin recycling that most homeowners are familiar with).
While there are many ways to reduce contamination, the most important is education. What is accepted in one city many not be accepted in a neighboring city. Local governments, their collection companies, and their processors need to develop coordinated messages on what does and does not belong in a commingled bin. Common items that can contaminate recycling bins include plastic bags, plastic wrap and film, liquids, food, soiled packaging, garden hoses, wire hangers, diapers, electronics, lightbulbs, and batteries. Many of these items can be recycled separately — but not in a commingled bin.
For up-to-date guidance, curbside recycling programs can check out our best management practices for commingled residential recycling