Are you recycling right? Waste haulers say when it doubt, throw it out

Grease police aren't patrolling suburban streets, but those in the recycling industry say they prefer the pizza boxes stuffed in curbside containers be free of oily residue, liners and uneaten slices.

It's part of a growing campaign to "recycle right" by preventing trash and contaminants on materials from ending up in recycling bins. Recyclers now are telling homeowners that "when in doubt, throw it out."

"The markets have changed," said Walter Willis, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, which in November released "rebooted" recycling guidelines.

"Before contamination became an issue, we became oblivious because they (recycling processors) could hide it in the bale and get away with it. Now, they can't."

Waste collectors say greasy pizza boxes are minor offenders when it comes to items that shouldn't be tossed in recycling bins. More problematic are plastic bags, "tanglers" like hoses or ropes, clothing, liquids, diapers, batteries and wood.

In some communities, haulers are even tagging containers with unacceptable items and leaving full bins at the curb.

Industry experts estimate that up to 25 percent of the material in recycling bins should be in the garbage. To reduce the contamination, a statewide task force of haulers, sorting facility operators, government agencies and businesses wants to create a simple, cohesive message to get consumers to do better.

Some, like the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, have established or updated websites including photos, Q&A's, videos and other information about what's acceptable.

If you haven't gotten the message, you likely will at some point.

"We still have a vision of a statewide education program," said Willis, who serves as co-chairman of the task force that includes the National Waste and Recycling Association and Solid Waste Association of North America.

Why is this happening?

One reason for the shift to cleaner recycling is that China has greatly reduced the amount of contamination in materials it will accept. Other markets, too, will be more demanding, Willis said.

"All the buyers, domestic and foreign, will say, 'We don't want that stuff on the bale anymore,'" he added.

Contaminated items also hamper sorting facilities, reduce commodity prices and affect remanufacturing markets, according to Willis. Demands for higher quality mean more sorting at recycling facilities, which can lead to lost production time and/or increased labor costs.

And with the prices of recyclable commodities substantially down from years past, the squeeze is on.

"We've had to slow down our sorting lines," said Lisa Disbrow, director of government and public affairs for Waste Management of Illinois Inc.

The company has added employees to deal with the 10,000 tons of curbside recyclables that are sorted and processed every month at its material recovery facility in Grayslake. And during the holidays through mid-January, the facility expects to receive an additional 100 tons of materials each day.

Why should the average resident care about any of this? Recycling processors say the added costs can be passed on to local governments that sign contracts with haulers, and ultimately to residents.

"There is a motivation for the resident to understand what goes into that cart so recycling can remain sustainable and affordable," Disbrow said.

Willis agrees the pressure is on but says prices have not yet increased in the Chicago area. Naperville, for example, recently inked a 10-year deal with a new waste hauler that includes no cost hike.

"Sure, their margins are getting squeezed on recycling, but overall, waste collection companies are very healthy," Willis said.

The recycle right push, he said, is more of a pre-emptive strike. "We will do our best to change the behavior of our residents, but we're not going to let you get into our pockets," for increases, he said.

To get a clearer picture, the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County and the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County have authorized a study of the markets, processing costs and capacities for the six primary facilities operating in the Chicago area.

Meanwhile, the push for cleaner recycling continues.

"It's basically educating the people who need to be educated," said Steve Schweinsberg, head of Prairieland Disposal Inc., based in Lake Barrington.

The company started tagging recycling containers about a year ago.

"We implemented this program on our own, and others are following suit," he said.

That includes Waste Management, which this summer began a pilot program in Round Lake Beach. Results show the number of customers not recycling properly has dropped by more than half in some areas.

Disbrow said a similar program the company ran in Elgin saw the contamination rate drop from 40 percent to 16 percent.

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  Materials from recycling bins and containers are maneuvered into position to be processed at Waste Management's facility in Grayslake. Mick Zawislak/
  Workers examine one-ton bales of mixed paper for contaminants, such as plastic bags, at the Waste Management processing facility in Grayslake. Mick Zawislak/
  Recyclable material, like this one-ton bale of mixed paper, is required to have fewer contaminants, like plastic bags. Mick Zawislak/
  A small artificial Christmas tree is out of place in a mountain of cardboard at Waste Management facility in Grayslake, where recyclable materials are processed. Mick Zawislak/
Recycling notices distributed in Round Lake Beach by Waste Management. Courtesy village of Round Lake Beach
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