With China cracking down, “contamination” has become a common criticism of American recycling—in other words, things end up where they shouldn’t. Packing peanuts stay in cardboard boxes. Staples hide in sheets of paper. A lime ends up in a Corona bottle. Or other things that aren’t so visible; a number “7” can look a lot like a “1” on a clear piece of plastic, but to a recycling center, the extra millimeter matters.
The best way to deal with it? Take a close look at how you recycle—and a closer one at what you’re recycling.
Different areas recycle differently. Here, streams are collected separately, kept apart in transit, and delivered to the Recycle Center up Ohio Gulch north of Hailey without contact. But Twin Falls County, for example, puts all recyclables in one bin, a single stream. The county pays a premium to do it, since the hodge-podge gets shipped to western Idaho for sorting.
Locally, mixed paper, cans, plastics numbered 1-5, plastic film and bags, and corrugated cardboard are the most common. The first three are picked up curbside, the second two at designated sites throughout the county.
Clear Creek Disposal, a local collection company that contracts with towns and homeowners, typically takes recycling on the first leg of its relay. “We’re the first step in the commercial process,” said Clear Creek’s Mike Goitiandia. “We try not to collect something that looks contaminated.”
If it looks off at the curb, the crew slaps an “oops” notice on the bin, and moves on, Goitiandia said. At public collection sites, drivers inspect the haul before loading it into the truck.
“We often see people comingling items, and recycling the wrong products,” Goitiandia said. “Think of a paper board wrapped in plastic: It can all be recycled, but it can’t be recycled together.”
Relative to other areas, though, the streams start pretty clean—and can get cleaner, according to Recycle Center Supervisor Lamar Waters.
Waters runs a high-roofed metal building tasked with turning the imported materials into baled products fit for export. Inside, a conveyer moves the haul down a long table; except for metals, which are parsed with a magnet, Waters and his staff act as the filter.
“We’re spread thin,” he said. “It takes time to sort. You spend all this time taking contaminates out, but there’s a point where I have to make a judgement call. If something is too contaminated, we don’t have time to get the resources out—we have to take it to the landfill.”