FF12: Avoiding easy recycling mistakes

Published: Apr. 25, 2019 at 8:21 PM CDT
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That good deed you think you're doing for the environment could be hurting it instead if you don't recycle correctly. There's more pressure now to recycle the right way after China banned recyclables from the U.S. in 2018 due to contamination levels. Factfinder 12 went to experts to find out how you can avoid contributing to the problem.

We asked Beth McDonald with Pro Kansas Recycling Center to help us go through peoples' recycling bins in an East Wichita neighborhood. McDonald says their facility in South Wichita has different rules than curbside services like those offered through Waste Connections.

"You need to check with your curbside recycling because most of them do not take plastic bags, but we do," said McDonald.

The same applies to certain types of plastics as well. At one home, McDonald pointed out a clam shell style packaging often used for fruit like strawberries. She says their facility no longer accepts that kind of plastic but other services do.

"The other thing of course is making sure it's empty," said McDonald referencing a water bottle. "This just has a little bit of water in it."

McDonald says leaving even a small amount of liquid or food in a container can contaminate an entire batch of recycling. We also found used napkins and tissues that the homeowner didn't realize were in the bin. Neither of those items are recyclable.

For curbside services, a majority of recycling in South Central Kansas ends up at Stutzman Refuse Disposal Processing Center in South Hutchinson.

"We get it every single day. We get about 100 to 120 tons from Wichita every single day alone," said Dustin Kalp with Stutzman.

Kalp says they can process up to 20 tons an hour but are slowed down by items that don't belong in the recycling bin.

"The biggest hurdle we deal with every day is contamination," said Kalp.

Large items are pulled out first. They see everything from hoses to greasy pizza boxes and even some dangerous items like needles and knives. Kalp says the most common form of contamination comes from plastic bags.

"I think people want to do the right thing and they see something that's plastic and just toss it in there," said Kalp.

Kalp says in order to avoid contamination, they have a multi-tiered process to sort through every single piece. Boxes, plastics and papers are separated by machine and by hand. A giant belt magnet helps suck up tin cans. Items are then baled and shipped to buyers. Kalp says their goal is to keep their contamination rate under two percent.

"It's very difficult. Sometimes it's 10 percent what's coming in here so we're peeling out eight percent," said Kalp.

He says buyers often send back contaminated batches or they end up in the landfill. That means recycling efforts are for nothing if they're not done correctly.

One of the most basic rules for any service is to make sure all items in your recycling bin are clean. McDonald recommends running food jars through the dishwasher if that's an option.

If you're unsure what your recycling service allows, check the top of the bin. Many carriers will include a guide that details what items they can and can't take. If you still have questions, check their website or give them a call.