The standard compactor truck (aka “garbage truck”) will crush anything at approximately 2,750 psi—enough pressure to pulverize a pickup truck—while its mechanical arms can lift up to 1,000 lbs.
Those compactor trucks then deliver our waste and recyclables to materials recovery facilities (MRFs), the centerpiece of the American recycling system. The largest MRFs can process up to 700 tons of material per day or more, with recyclables whizzing past at nearly 20 mph.
While all of these specs would make you believe in its strength and reliability, in reality, the American recycling system is incredibly fragile. And for a country that collectively throws away 804,090 tons per day without full knowledge of what is and what isn’t recyclable, we constantly break it.
While we’ve recently covered the types of valuable recyclables we tend to throw in the trash during spring cleaning, the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond, this is a case of the opposite. Through contamination and the act of “wishcycling”, we’re tossing nonrecyclable items known for their troublemaking into our recycling bins.
Plastic bags, leather belts, and more—we’ll cover the often-recycled (yet nonrecyclable) items that break the system, endanger its workers, and spike your business’s waste bill.
However well-intentioned, most people are contaminators. And in the recycling industry, contamination is a complex issue without a simple solution.
As we covered in our blog post How Clean Do Our Recyclables Need to Be?, contamination skews the underlying value in the recycling business:
“As a basic definition in the waste industry, contamination is anything that significantly reduces the value of recyclable materials and renders them unusable. Commercial haulers depend on the resale value of your materials to turn profit, and when those materials are diminished, the haulers have no choice but to send it to the dump at their own expense.”
Amplifying our dilemma is something called the National Sword, a 2017 policy enforced by China, formerly the world’s largest importer of recyclable waste. Under the strict legislation, the country would only allow the import of recyclables if the load contained 0.5% or less contaminants.
The United States, who had been sending 40% of its paper, scrap plastics, and other recyclables prior to the policy, averages contamination rates of 25% or higher. As Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and India align their own policies akin to National Sword, the U.S. is being forced to reexamine its practices—including fine-tuning the MRF—if it’s to recover the salability of its rising recyclable waste.
But single-stream recycling, the American system of putting all recyclables in the same bin or dumpster, figuratively throws a wrench in how we achieve clean bales of material.
MRF workers cut plastic and wet cardboard out of a sorting screen. Source: Allegheny Front via Waste Management
Below are the recyclable materials known for diminishing value, clogging machines, and stopping our waste stream in its tracks for hours at a time each day.
Wet cardboard & paper: Damp or soaked paper and paperboard not only alters its fibrous makeup, diminishing its recyclable viability, it can stick to machines and other recyclables.
Recommendation: Keep paper and cardboard products clean, dry, and separate from open bottles and cans. If it becomes wet, you can shred and compost it!
Plastic films & plastic bags: Plastic films used for wraps, grocery bags, bubble wrap, and packaging is technically recyclable, but not through a MRF. They’re the primary culprit for tangles, snags, and jams.
Recommendation: Keep these out of your recycling bin, and find a local collection center near you (it’s closer than you think!).
Sitting, Waiting, Wishcycling
A derivative of contamination is the practice of “wishcycling”. The difference is that wishcycling often entails throwing away items that are completely unrecyclable without knowing it.
From our blog post What is Wishcycling?:
“The wishful thinking, and the guilt behind contributing more junk to our rising landfills, is a powerful urge that’s difficult to overcome. That’s probably why, outside of the typical Styrofoam plate or plastic bag, you’ll find car parts, mannequin arms, umbrellas, bowling balls, and boat anchors (it’s more common than you’d imagine).
MRFs aren’t equipped to handle many of the things we attempt to recycle, and the problems they cause are costly and dangerous.
As we mentioned, stopping operations to cut tangled junk out of the machines is a daily occurrence. It becomes even more challenging and caustic when something foreign appears in the mix, resulting in injuries, mechanical breakdowns, and facility fires (there were 317 reported recycling facility fires in 2020—and a larger share go unreported).
That downtime has a price, just as routine maintenance and repair do. And that cost routinely is passed along to your business in the form of annual price increases, or APIs.
Rising operational costs over the past decade. Source: Resource Recycling
The following items are frequently “wishcycled”, causing headaches for the recycling industry and unwelcome surprises at your annual budget reviews.
Textiles & clothing: Denim jeans, tights, leather belts, polyester dresses—all of these items are prone to wrapping themselves around machines.
Recommendation: Donate, host a clothing swap, or find a collection box at a local retailer!
Nylon bags & fabrics: Through compaction and locomotion through a MRFs mechanical processes, heat is generated. When items crafted from nylon—like bags, hammocks, etc.—are heated, they essentially melt into a brick that’s tricky to remove from the parts.
Recommendation: Keep nylon products (plastic symbol #7) out of your recycling bin. Instead, reuse, resell, or donate nylon bags, clothing, and undamaged fabrics.
Household tools: Wishcycling garden hoses, umbrellas, extension cords, rope, and vinyl tarps are common during an office, warehouse, or garage cleanout—and just as common to shut down a MRF.
Recommendation: Attempt a DIY repair, donate the item, or, as a last resort, throw it away, but do not attempt to place it in your recycling bin.
Electronics with lithium ion batteries: Plain and simple, when damaged, lithium ion batteries rapidly heat up and start fires if there’s a residual charge on the device or battery. Estimated annual damages in the U.S. and Canada amount to over $1.2B.
Recommendation: Trade in or find a local e-waste collection near you—over half of U.S. states have laws requiring ongoing collection services.
While RoadRunner can’t prevent wishcycling, we do have a better way to ensure your recyclables reach their end market, retain their value, and keep your business from incurring countless contamination fees.
Through our network of third-party truck drivers, FleetHaul, we skip the MRF entirely. Our “clean-stream” recycling bundles your plastic, cardboard, aluminum, and more material separately, delivering them promptly to their respective recycling centers.
Even without signing on with FleetHaul, RoadRunner works with your business—easily navigating existing waste hauler relationships—to improve your commodities through education and operational improvement powered by technology.
RoadRunner puts its trust in machine learning, not machines—and that is what we call Smarter Recycling.