#5. Contamination

Is it going to matter that the staple is in with the tea bag? Should I detach the nylon tie from the cardboard label that was in the new jeans pocket? Does the aluminum wrap on the neck of the wine bottle cause a big problem? Should paper come off of tins? Is it a big deal if a couple newspapers are in with the magazines? These are all good questions.

The bins at the Transfer Station (TS) are categorized by the main substance in a given container. For example, for the plastics, a P.E.T.E. (1) peanut butter jar is going to have a solid coloured lid that may not have a recycling number on it, but it is likely not going to be P.E.T.E., so it is best not to toss that into the (1) bin with the rest. It’s going to go with the hard plastics. That’s pretty easy – separating a lid, like we probably all do with the metal lids on glass jars. But how far should separating go?

Recycling centres have to keep their eye on the industry. The demand for different materials fluctuates.

It’s likely that we all see some materials that are in the incorrect bin, or tins with food waste still in them, or stuff like a ‘mostly plastic’ device in the plastics bin. If the bin has mostly the correct material is that okay, and if it isn’t will someone or something fix it? Is there sufficient technology or processes in place down the line that will handle this for us?

Yes and no.

Speaking again with Danny Lewis, Education Coordinator at Raven Recycling(.org), he describes the situation as somewhat of a moving target. Danny indicates that there is equipment in the industry that can shred certain materials and then detect some substances but not others, so as to ‘purify’ loads that enter facilities. I can imagine this happening in the same way that a magnet might swoop over a dumpster and grab iron but not stainless steel (and hopefully not stick to the dumpster). Similarly, some materials are melted or burned out of processing. Others are sifted or sorted. But it is not done everywhere for all materials. Recycling centres have to keep their eye on the industry. The demand for different materials fluctuates. Buyers for recyclables change. Facilities change. The routing changes. The capacity to handle materials, in the same way, changes.

When the materials reach their final buyer, there is an inspection of the relative “contamination” in bales of materials. Sometimes that inspection is carried out with technology, but other times, bales are simply eye balled in the same way that we might look into a bale at the TS. If the decision is that there is too much contamination, it may not be accepted, and then if there are hundreds of bales in the shipment, that decision may simply be extrapolated to all bales, rather than inspecting each one. That might be a gross mistake in terms of the actual contamination, but buyers are relying on getting the materials they expect. So the risks for the whole system are real in that materials don’t get to market and then might become waste, despite best intentions.

Let’s face it, it’s a monstrous task to deconstruct and divide materials at the scale of a community, keep them free from foreign materials- let alone dirt or rain, avoid all mistakes, and deliver unified bundles of perfectly prepared recyclables to (in our case) mostly far off sorters and processors. A certain amount of contamination is anticipated and allowable with or without further separation. But we can get sloppy about it at any point in the chain, and all the efforts can then prove fruitless. We don’t want that.

So, there’s separating and then there’s separating.

Of course a routine makes it easier to do, but this whole system is not really characterized by routine. It is a change game.

For me, it comes down to deciding “what’s doable?” If recycling is an activity that is a part of the household, then at a minimum, I have some commitment to separation, whether at home or at the TS. Taking one more step, I think it’s reasonable to be conscientious about it. In other words, if I make or see a mistake, I’ll fix it. So far – so good. Further, I’m prepared to be open to learning. Of course a routine makes it easier to do, but this whole system is not really characterized by routine. It is a change game. I’ve decided to flow with the direction that is set and when instructed, reset.

As my system evolves and repeats, it gets easier and I can take on more ideas. I can commit to ensuring there is no food left over in bags or containers. That is obvious contamination that we are used to dealing with in the kitchen. It’s probably an easy rinse. Beyond this, each package is a case-by-case situation. I know that it will help the chain, but some separating is more work than others.

Enter manufacturers. I think some level of responsibility resides here. It is not really enough that packages tout “Please recycle” messages when it sometimes takes more than a few seconds and possibly a tool to separate materials that they designed. Manufacturers ought to get in the game as well and make separation easier. In the meantime, there is a lot I can do.

Will my little bin make a difference to the bales headed to buyers in other countries? That’s probably the wrong way to look at it. It is all our little bins. I do believe that if my recyclables are mixed up and dirty, I’m not doing anyone any favours and I am needlessly creating a problem that will either up the contamination quotient or it will have to be righted somewhere. The small effort needed at my end to be vigilant is applicable and possible. I am a consumer with left over packaging that might otherwise pollute. My careful sorting saves time, energy, or money down the line. Why not do that?

~ Ross Burnet ~