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Why is contamination bad for recycling?

November 3, 2020

Amanda, our shared Zero-Waste intern with West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), shares her experience with the City of Grand Rapids’ Feet on the Street Campaign and how contamination affects the rest of the recycling process, including the sorting, baling, and value of recyclable bales at Kent County Recycling Center.

Over the last few weeks you may have noticed someone peering inside of your recycling bin or discovered an “Oops” tag attached to its handle. This is all a part of the eight week community outreach project taking place throughout Grand Rapids called “Feet on the Street”. An effort made possible by the City of Grand Rapids, The Recycling Partnership, and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, this project aims to educate residents about recycling contamination. Prior to this campaign, the City of Grand Rapids’s recycling stream saw 27% contamination, a number that means whole loads of recycling run the risk of being unable to be recycled and are turned away from the Recycling Center. It also means that our community is getting far less for our valuable recyclables than they are worth when purchased by a buyer. In either instance, both Kent County Recycling Center and Grand Rapids residents are disadvantaged. 

When poor recycling habits result in materials too contaminated to be recycled, the future of recycling in an area can become jeopardized. Currently, Kent County’s Recycling Center, as well as most other recycling centers in the country, does not make enough to cover operational costs. With this in mind, Kent County communities, including Grand Rapids, can’t afford to sell valuable recyclable material for less than what it’s worth. In the worst cases, contamination can also result in buyers turning to other facilities for cleaner, less contaminated resources, potentially leaving the Kent County Recycling Center without an outlet for material. This means decreased financial sustainability for Kent County’s recycling facility and increased cost for the city and, consequently, you and I. When recycling is done right it becomes more economically efficient, which results in less money going toward contamination reduction efforts, and more money to sustain recycling programs. This, in turn, means increased ease of recycling for residents.

“Feet On the Street” takes a grassroots approach with inspectors going bin to bin, assessing each one for contamination, and informing residents of the items that don’t belong or can’t be recycled through their curbside recycling bin service. Inspectors are trained to look for contamination in the form of dirty recyclables, organic material (such as food, liquid, or yard waste), flexible film plastics, tanglers (such as long cords or hoses), bagged recyclables, and garbage. I’ve been able to take part in this initiative firsthand, as a recycling bin inspector, and have conversations with inquisitive residents who have proved on the spot that this form of education and outreach is so important. With changing technologies, development of new everyday products and materials over the last several years, and an overall lack of education, the confusion and uncertainty regarding recycling is evident. Although, for some, it appears that the value of sustainable waste diversion is not held or understood, the majority of my interactions with residents have displayed that a great deal of people are trying to do their part but have just been misinformed along the way. While the tags offer simple “Do”s and “Do Not”s, here is some additional information about the materials that you should take out of your bins. 

  • Dirty Recyclables: Any carton, aluminum, glass, or plastic containers should be left in your bin empty and clean with little to no remaining food residue or liquid. Food contamination is one of the more prevalent “oops” I have seen so far in my experience as an inspector and is something that is so easy to fix as a recycler. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t want to touch it again, it’s not clean enough for the bin. Unemptied and dirty recyclables have the potential to contaminate tons of clean material rendering them unusable for reprocessing. Not to mention that it makes the recycling center sorting line dirty and can pose a health hazard to our recycling center workers. So, before adding anything from your refrigerator or pantry into your bin make sure to dump it and rinse it clean.



  • Plastic Grocery Bags and Film or Flexible Plastics: This is the most common form of contamination that I have seen and the most misunderstood. Plastic grocery bags as well as other thin plastics like chip bags and food wrap cannot be recycled curbside. Flexible plastics, like shipping envelopes, air pillows, or bubble wrap, can act as tanglers in the sorting machines, or due to their lightweight nature, are confused by the machines as other materials (such as paper) in the recycling process. This leaves entire bales of resources contaminated. Instead of tossing your grocery bags in with your recyclables, you can only take them to designated special plastic film collections, oftentimes a nearby retailer, to be recycled.


  • Bagged Recyclables: Recyclables need to be left loosely in your bin in order for them to be sorted by the Recycling Center machines and sort line workers. Behind flexible film plastics, this is the next most common contaminant and something that is met with a lot of confusion especially since the advent of the “recycling bag”. Your recyclables are not able to be properly processed unless they are loose in your bin. Due to the nature of single-stream recycling, your materials, as they are in your bin, end up on the sorting belt without any prior intervention — no one is opening your bag of recycling. If your clean aluminum, plastics, and glass are all tied up, they cannot be properly identified as recyclables, as some folks abuse their bin by putting bags of garbage in instead. While there are physical sorters involved, with 120 tons of material processed daily, there is not time for every bag of recyclables to be emptied. For this reason, even if you use a bag in your home, be sure to dump your items freely into your bin before it hits the street — plus you can reuse your bag for the next round of recycling.


  • Food: Leftover food, or grease residue have no place in the recycling process and actively contaminate the otherwise would-be clean reusable material around them. Just as everything in your bin should be empty and clean, there should be absolutely no loose food or food residue in your bin. As an organic material, food can still be diverted from landfills sustainably through composting, however this is a completely separate process and should remain so to keep the value of recyclables high and costs of recycling low.


  • Yard Waste: Like food, yard waste is organic material that should never find its way into your recycling bin or even your garbage bin as it is banned from entering landfills. With the changing of the season it becomes more commonplace to find leaves and sticks that end up at the sorting facility contaminating our valuable recyclables. If you choose to dispose of the fallen leaves and other organic materials in your yard this fall, please be sure to check out the yard waste disposal options within Kent County.



  • Other: Oftentimes we’ll run into other materials in bins that we refer to as “wishcycled” items. These are items that are included in hopes that they are recyclable but not because they necessarily are recyclable. This can be anything from styrofoam to clothing to wood, to scrap metal to lawn chairs, you name it. Oftentimes these can show up as tanglers or hazards to our workers. Not only will these items not be recycled but they will create problems in their path and increase costs for our community’s recycling program. Avoid including items that you have doubts about and instead consult Kent County’s Waste & Recycling Directory for an item’s recyclability at a special collection or for its proper disposal. There may in fact be a way to sustainably divert them from landfills but it surely is not in your curbside, single-stream recycling bin.

The above list is not an inclusive one for the misplaced items that end up in our single stream sorting facility, but it encompasses a great deal of problematic material that can be easily avoided to decrease the amount of contamination in our recycling. Keeping the value of recyclable materials high allows us to provide financial stability to our recycling center, keep workers safe, and keep the cost of recycling low for residents. While your individual recycling makes up only a fraction of all of the materials sorted daily, remember every time you move your bin to the curb that those items have a direct impact on our community’s recycling stream for the better or the worse. 

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