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Economy

You're Probably Recycling Wrong

An expert explains how to do it smarter, and why some materials muck up the sorting process.
Recycling bins at a park in Singapore.
Recycling bins at a park in Singapore.Tim Chong / Reuters

Maybe you’ve found yourself mystified by the symbols and rules of recycling. Counterintuitively, the single-stream system—which allows residents to toss any and all recyclables into one bin—hasn’t cleared up the confusion. Many people simply throw in anything made out of plastic, glass, or metal and hope for the best. But this assorted jumble can cause big issues once it arrives at the processing plant.

The problem with the anything-goes approach is that non-recyclable materials can get mixed in with and contaminate recyclables, reducing the value of the batch as a whole. This effect increases with the volume of recycling. The Washington Post reported that contamination rose significantly in Washington, D.C., after the city installed larger residential recycling bins in 2014, leading to a 50 percent drop in the share of the city’s profit from selling recyclables. Across the country, municipalities are paying more to process and haul away these undesirable outputs. “By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins—while demanding almost no sorting by consumers—the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system,” wrote the Post.