Is my recycling really being recycled?
July 20, 2010 1:50 PM   Subscribe

How is it possible that paper is not hopelessly contaminated in single-stream recycling?

My county is going to a single-stream recycling system soon. I don't understand how any usable paper is retrieved from bins that are full of drips of salad dressing and beer from bottles, dampened by rain, etc. I found this Recycling Today article from 2002 that talks about broken glass being a significant contaminant, but 2002 was a long time ago. Is it any better now? Or are we just feeling eco-virtuous but secretly sending our paper off to a landfill?
posted by purpleclover to Home & Garden (4 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Recycling without sorting is a short article on one (of many?) automated systems, based on a number of filtering systems.

Here is one single-stream recycling system producer's site, which includes a ten minute video. Note that there are still people involved in some steps of sorting.

One benefit of the single-stream system is that there is a lowered hurdle to recycling. Whereas fewer people took the time to sort the brown glass from green, anyone can chuck the day's newspaper in a bin with their (mostly) empty peanut butter containers and beer bottles. There is probably more contaminated material than when people were sorting things, but there is probably more recycling on the whole because of single-stream systems.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:21 PM on July 20, 2010

Best answer: Here is a useful document on paper recycling, with cartoon dogs doing the steps.

Paper is reduced to the most basic pulp during recycling and mixed with a lot of water (that doc says 99.5% water). So any water-based contaminants would be essentially meaningless.
posted by smackfu at 2:23 PM on July 20, 2010

Best answer: I used to work at a recycling company and I can say yes, much of the paper will be hopelessly contaminated. The number that was tossed around by the people I worked with was that 25% of all material placed in a single stream system will be contaminated and either have to be landfilled or incinerated, depending on what they have in your area.

My place did two-sort and had a very small (<2>
Single stream is cheaper for huge companies like Waste Management because it is easier to automate. There really aren't any laws requiring a maximum contamination rate or anything. This is just corporate cost cutting at the expense of quality recycling programs.
posted by look busy at 3:08 AM on July 21, 2010

Hmm, weird formatting above. My employer had a less than two percent contamination rate for their recyclable material.
posted by look busy at 3:09 AM on July 21, 2010

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