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'When In Doubt, Throw It Out': Recycling Contamination Is Costing NC Communities

Recycling bin.
Town of Chapel Hill

You mean well, and want to help the environment. But have you ever tossed a plastic bag in your blue curbside recycling bin? Or a styrofoam container? You might be part of the reason America has such a lousy reputation for recycling.China is the world's largest recycler. But this month, that country stopped accepting materials from the United States. Chinese officials say too many bundles of American paper, cardboard, plastic, and aluminum are contaminated with hazardous materials or items that aren't actually recyclable. Think plastic bags or garden hoses: not only are they worthless at a conventional plant, they also get tangled up in machinery.

Wendy Worley of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said recycling contamination is a huge problem here. She said local recycling processors have to remove contaminated items before selling materials at a lower cost in other Asian markets.

"We have seen facilities have to slow down their processing lines, their sorting facilities, in order to respond to increased specifications to decrease contamination," she said.

But Worley added that this is really an opportunity for Americans to clean up their act and get back in the game.

"It is sort of a short-term market disruption that we see, she said. "And as facilities begin to respond to the call for reduced contamination, it really refocuses our efforts on that material quality that will ultimately make markets stronger and more resilient to these pricing fluctuations."

Municipal solid waste officers are urging residents to make sure an item is recyclable before tossing it in the blue bin.  Doug Huff is Dare County's Solid Waste Supervisor. He said it's better to be safe than sorry.

"Our big thing is, 'When it doubt, throw it out'," he said. "We would rather trash it than contaminate a good product and not get anything for it."

Contamination means local communities pay more to haul their recycling away. It's still cheaper than burying it in a landfill.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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