- The high recycling rate in Tucson, AZ — 90% of residents in the city and 92% outside where Waste Management provides the service — is offset by its 20% contamination rate, says Sherri Ludlam, environmental specialist with the city's Environmental Services Department. That means 20% of what ends up in recycling bins should go in the trash. "It’s much higher than we would like," Ludlum told the Daily Star, adding, "15 % is the industry standard."
- At ReCommunity Inc., the machinery has to be shut down every three hours in a work day so the contaminants can be cleaned out. "We process 200 tons of material a day in an eight- to nine-hour shift," Manager Doug Jennings said. "Three times a day, we clean out the wrappage, the plastic bags, the garden hoses, the ropes, the cords, anything that can wrap up around a shaft."
- ReCommunity, which has had the city contract since 2012, can separate glass, cans, plastics, paper and cardboard automatically. Sensors separate aluminum from heavier metals and from plastic and glass. At the end, the materials are compressed and bundled to be sent to the various locations where they will be processed for reuse.
Americans find recycling confusing.
"As the marketplace of packaging has changed, people look at something and they think, ‘OK, can I or can’t I,' and they’re standing there trying to decide," Ludlam said. "But they’re only going to do that for so long and then it’s either going to go in the trash or it will be something that we can’t accept (for recycling), and then we wind up with a high contamination rate."
Susan Robinson, director of public affairs at Waste Management, told USA Today that 16% of the recycling it processes is contaminated, double the average of the 8% contamination rate 10 years ago. The Environmental Research & Education Foundation has found that contamination rates on average rose from 7% in 2007 in 437 facilities to 16% in 2013.
That's why consumer education efforts are so important, such as ones conduced by the nonprofit Recycle Across America, the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful and the National Waste & Recycling Association. New York-based Recyclebank, a company that offers a rewards-for-recycling program, is letting users in 350 communities earn Recyclebank points for learning about recycling contamination.
Tucson spells out the recycling rules clearly on its website. The biggest contaminator there and in other places is plastic bags, which get a bad rap for ending up in waterways and clogging recycling machinery. Some cities charge fees for the bags in hopes of curbing their use, and at least 160 municipalities in the U.S. have enacted bans.
Tucson is also fighting the myth that recycled materials go to the landfill anyway. "There are people who just say I’m not going to sort my trash," Ludlam said. "They’re just flat out not going to do it. Everybody in the country has had education programs, and I wouldn’t say that we’re asking for a lifestyle change. But we’re trying to change minds."