What Is Recycling Contamination?

What Is Recycling Contamination?


 Did you know, a single contaminated material can end up sending an entire batch of recyclables to landfill? Contamination is an issue that significantly reduces the value of recyclable materials and renders them non-recyclable. Recycling is only effective if the collected materials remain clean and free of impurities. Fortunately, understanding the common contaminants will help you keep your recycling streams clean and retain the value of your materials. In this post, we detail which common contaminates to look out for and the best practices for keeping your recyclables clean. Continue reading to learn more, and make sure to grab a copy of our Guide To Avoiding Common Contaminates at the end of this post!

Look Out For These Common Contaminates!

The items below can contaminate an entire load of recyclable materials and force your hauler to landfill them instead. Always do your best to avoid placing these items into your recycling container(s).


electronics + small appliances

Electronics contain lead, cadmium, and mercury, and they are considered hazardous waste that can be harmful to the environment and human health when improperly disposed of. Consider donating or trading in your electronics and appliances to retail stores if they are in good condition. If they are not in salvageable for donation, most areas have local drop-off programs that will help you discard and/or recycle the devices using specialized processes. If you're in need of a one-time pickup of electronic devices, check out our RoadRunnerGO service page to schedule.



Items that contain food or drink residue are not processable at recycling facilities. Avoid recycling food containers that have more than eight percent of food or drink residue. Food & drink contamination is commonly found on take-out containers, greasy pizza boxes, and bottles & jars that have not been rinsed. As a rule of thumb, rinse and dry your bottles and containers before recycling to clean up residue. Lastly, any soiled fibrous materials should be sent to landfill. 


Greasy Pizza Boxes

Pizza boxes are made from cardboard, but the oil from pizza often seeps into the cardboard and it cannot be separated from the fiber during the pulping process. This makes the cardboard less valuable and marketable. When in doubt, send your items like this to landfill to avoid contaminating other materials.


Plastic Bags

While technically made from recyclable plastic, thin plastic bags tend to clog up recycling equipment, causing major delays and potential harm to workers at the recycling facility. Plastic bags are, however, recyclable at specialized facilities.


Hoses, Lights, Extension Cords

Cords can wrap around recycling equipment causing severe damage and may lead to shutting down the entire facility. Electronic recycling programs may accept and recycle cords for you.


Used paper napkins, plates, cups, tissues

These materials are not recyclable if they are already used. They are often soiled with food, drink, and other contaminants that diminish their quality. Many compostable options exist for these items!


non-recyclable plastic

Many facilities will not accept plastics #3-7. Check with your local facilities to learn which plastics they accept.


yard waste

Like food waste, if your material is dirty, then the value of the materials is significantly reduced. Consider composting if possible.


Styrofoam (polystyrene foam)

Polystyrene foam's tiny fibers make it difficult to properly break down during the recycling process. While this material is technically recyclable, the cost to recycle Styrofoam outweighs the value. Styrofoam also does not decompose, so it's best to avoid using this material altogether whenever possible.


Hazardous waste

Hazardous waste contains a variety of chemicals that are harmful to the environment and create unsafe work environments. Materials such as paint, automotive fluids, car batteries, and pesticides require special handling when you dispose of them.


Disposable Cups

Most single-use paper cups contain a lining of polyethylene film which renders it non-recyclable because the recycling facility isn't able to separate the plastic film from the paper material. Whenever possible, replace disposable cups with reusable mugs!


Plastic Film

Similar to cords, plastic film can get stuck in recycling equipment and cause damage and delays. Plastic film, such as produce bags, dry cleaning bags, plastic wrap, and bubble wrap are not recyclable in most cases.


Coffee Pods

Coffee pods are made from a combination of plastic, aluminum, and paper which can't be easily separated for recycling. Try using a reusable coffee pod instead.



Most recycling facilities are not able to melt down ceramics for recycling. Local drop-off sites may accept and recycle your ceramics for you.


Plastic Straws

Plastic straws are not accepted by most facilities, because they are small and flexible, and can get stuck in machinery. Avoid using single-use straws, or replace them with metal straws.


Broken Glass

Broken glass can be very dangerous for recyclers and service providers. Never recycle broken glass along with other recyclable materials. If you are not able to reuse the glass, wrap it in newspaper and toss it in the trash.



Textiles are recyclable, but placing them in the recycling bin along with your other recyclables will contaminate the designated recycling stream. As much as possible, try to find a local recycling who accepts textiles, as opposed to sending them to landfill. Many retailers will accept and recycle your unwanted textiles for you.

Consequences of Contamination



Contaminated materials are not recyclable, resulting in low recycling rates for businesses.



Contamination fees are expensive and your containers will not be serviced.



Large amounts of your valuable recyclable materials will end up in landfill due to contamination

How To Avoid Contamination

In addition to looking out for the common contaminates, the following practices will help to keep your materials valuable, your recycling rates high, and contamination rates low:


Keep It Clean

Separating your materials is what keeps them valuable and clean. This will keep your diversion rates high and contamination rates low. Learn about our Clean Stream Recycling Method.


Every recycling facility accepts different materials, so it's beneficial to sit down with your employees and explain what materials your business can recycle and the best practice for doing so.

Label Containers

Labeling your containers will eliminate confusion, minimize contamination and ensure your materials remain valuable. This way, your employees will always remember what to recycle!


Now that you have a good understanding of the 'common contaminates' and the best practices for avoiding contamination, we're hopeful that it will make a huge impact in keeping your materials out of landfill and save your business money. Let us know in the comments below how your business avoids contamination. Check out the guide below if you're interested in summary of this post that you can share with colleagues and friends:




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