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Dirty Diapers, Used Needles, and More: The Worst Things Americans Try to Recycle

Maddie Stone Mar 08, 2019. 15 comments
GarbageThis week, we are writing about waste and trash, examining the junk that dominates our lives, and digging through garbage for treasure.  

Recycling is in trouble . There are many reasons for this, chief among them a string of new bans and restrictions on recycled goods set forth by China . But there’s another, related reason why so much of what Americans try to recycle is now winding up at an incinerator or a landfill.

We toss a lot of garbage in there.

Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), told Earther that on average, roughly a quarter of the stuff Americans place in their recycling bins shouldn’t be there. This contamination causes huge problems at material recovery facilities—snarling up machinery, slowing down sorting lines, and driving costs higher. Sometimes, it even endangers lives.

If we want to keep recycling afloat, we need to stop treating it like garbage. To that end, the NWRA has been working with other organizations to put together a “dirty half dozen” list of the most troublesome, disgusting, and patently un-recyclable things folks decide to mix with their glass bottles and aluminum cans for reasons incomprehensible.

Germain kindly provided us with an early look at that list. If you or someone you love is guilty of any of the following crimes against waste management, please mend your ways and spread the word.

Plastic Bags

People generally get that plastic bags are bad for the planet (although whether paper or cloth bags are better is debatable ). Perhaps that’s why so many of us toss these bags in our curbside recycling bin, out of some misplaced sense of hope that they won’t end up in the stomach of a whale .

This, it turns out, is a terrible solution.

Plastic bags are what folks in the industry call “tanglers,” which are exactly what they sound like. They wrap around the equipment at sorting facilities, preventing items that are recyclable from getting separated properly. The result? Cans wind up in bales of cardboard, and China turns those bales away at the port because they’re contaminated.

When bags really snarl up the machinery, sorting facilities are often forced to shut the entire line down so that workers can yank the offending garbage out by hand. This is a waste of time, effort, and money. “They cause no end of grief,” Germain said.

Instead of wantonly sabotaging your local recycling plant in this manner, re-use your plastic bags for small trash cans or cat litter. Or, see if your local grocery store can recycle them. There’s a good chance it will.

Weird, Ropey Things

You know what else tangles up sorting equipment? Christmas lights. Hoses. Wires. Jump ropes.

“People throw lots of long ropey things away that get wrapped around our machines,” Germain said.

Don’t be one of those people.

Batteries and Electronic Waste

Not only should you keep your dog-eaten wires out of the blue bin, keep all of your electronics out of there.

There are numerous facilities across the country that will recycle your electronic waste, or e-waste. These are not the same facilities that sort bottles from cans, and putting last year’s iPhone in your curbside recycling bin won’t get it to the right place. More likely, it’ll end up in a landfill, causing all manner of nasty toxins to seep into the environment.

Or, it’ll spark a fire when the lithium-ion battery explodes, a common occurrence when these batteries are crushed, scraped, or dropped. “The fires from what I understand are pretty much every day,” Germain said.

Many of the fires caused by lithium-ion battery explosions are quickly put out by the workers at sorting facilities (or waste facilities ), who have grown accustomed to this joyless consequence of the smartphone age. But sometimes they get out of hand and cause serious problems, like the five-alarm fire that burned overnight at a Queens recycling facility last year, forcing four branches of the Long Island Rail Road to shut down.

Get familiar with your city’s options for e-waste and battery recycling so that you’re not responsible for the next giant garbage fire.

Food and Liquids

You’re doing your monthly fridge purge, and you pull a half-empty jar of pizza sauce out of the back. You take one look at it, realize there’s an ecosystem flourishing inside, and chuck it straight in the recycling bin.

Rinsing that crusted old jar out might sound like a pain, but tossing a dirty jar in the recycling is a pretty sure fire way to contaminate everything else in there. And because China is justifiably tired of taking our sauce-soaked cardboard, it’ll probably wind up in a landfill.

The good news is most municipalities don’t require your jars and cans to be squeaky clean for recycling: Just a quick rinse to get rid of any visible gunk will usually do. A can of coke just needs to be emptied.

As for that oily pizza box? Throw it in the trash.

Dirty Needles

On the list of things nobody should have to deal with at work, getting stuck with a dirty needle is pretty high up. Apparently, the heroes who work at sorting facilities face this threat on the daily.

“What we think happens is a lot of people have injectables at home,” Germain said, explaining that after a person administers, say, their daily insulin shot, they may place the used needle in a plastic bottle.

“And when they’re finished they know the plastic bottle is recyclable. And they don’t generally think the first thing that’s gonna happen is that bottle bursts open in the truck and the needles spill everywhere,” she went on.

To avoid an accidental needle stick (among other dangers), it’s now fairly common for sorting facilities to provide their employees with puncture-proof gloves, Germain said. Still, there’s always the threat of things getting jostled around and a dirty needle becoming temporarily airborne before landing on a patch of unprotected skin. Germain said that while this is “certainly not an everyday occurrence,” it’s “definitely undesirable.”

No kidding.

For more on how to properly dispose of needles, start with this handy FDA guide.

Used Diapers

I can kind of understand how all of the other items on this list make their way into the recycling bin from time to time, whether it’s out of ignorance, laziness, or an entrenched belief that certain things should be recyclable. I am at a loss as to why anyone would think a wad of excrement-soaked fibers belongs in the blue bin.

Germain agreed that the presence of this particular item is “baffling.” But she does have a theory.

“We have no idea how legit it is,” she cautioned. But, she said, she thinks diapers are getting tossed in the recycling because the packaging they come in is often recyclable and bears the universal recycling symbol.

Exhibit A:

People failing to read the fine print when they see the recycling symbol may be the root cause of a lot of recycling issues. (The EPA even cites it as a possible reason so many lithium batteries wind up in the recycling stream.) It doesn’t help when consumer products are misleading or ambiguous with their environmental marketing claims.

Clearly, the labeling system could use some improvement. But as a stopgap, just remember: It’s not okay to throw literal shit in the recycling bin.

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