Recycling contamination is a problem, and the reasons may surprise you.

A load of residential recycling may contain items that don’t belong, but that doesn’t mean the entire load is contaminated or no longer fit to be recycled. High-tech sorting facilities can separate your recycling from the things that don’t belong. So, what’s all the fuss about contamination in the blue bin, and what happens to contaminated recycling?

What is recycling contamination?

A recycling bin with several labelled contaminant: a full sports drink bottle labelled 'unemptied containers', a white plastic bag full of items labelled 'bundled items', a battery labelled 'depot-only recyclables', a diaper labelled 'garbage', and a celery stalk labelled food.

Examples of different types of contamination.

Recycling contamination occurs when anything that isn’t allowed in a blue bin ends up in one. It varies by location, but for Manitoba’s residential recycling programs this includes:

  • Items that are not accepted in the blue bin in your community, such as:
  • Items that are accepted in your blue bin, BUT:

On average, 15% of the items collected in Manitoba’s residential recycling are contaminants. We list the most common contaminants later in this article.


What happens to contaminated recycling (and what doesn’t)?

An overhead view of rows of baled recycling at the sorting floor at a recycling sorting facility in Winnipeg

Rows of baled materials at GFL’s sorting facility in Winnipeg.

A somewhat-common belief exists that if someone’s recycling is contaminated, everything goes to the landfill, no matter how perfect the rest of the recycling is. This is not true. If it were, there wouldn’t be a point in collecting recycling, because there’s bound to be some contamination in every truck load.

Once collected, residential recycling goes to a sorting facility. Workers and machines sort accepted recyclables by material type and then compact them into bales. Nearly all non-accepted items get filtered out and taken to a landfill. The sorters aren’t perfect, so some residual waste may get baled with recyclables.

The bales are then shipped to end-markets (i.e., paper mills, metal or plastic processors) that process the materials to be used to manufacture new products. The processors that purchase the bales permit some contamination and will remove any residual waste that doesn’t belong. If the bales repeatedly exceed the permitted level of contamination, the processors may refuse them. But don’t panic—this is rare thanks to the high efficacy of modern sorting facilities.

But if that’s the case…


Why is recycling contamination a problem?

A recycling facility employee picks up contaminants from a pile of cardboard.

A recycling facility employee picks up contaminants from a pile of cardboard.

1. Worker safety and equipment damage

Many items pose risks to collection and sorting staff and their equipment. For example, batteries are the most common cause of recycling truck and sorting facility fires.

Although most recycling is sorted by machinery, staff must first remove contamination by hand (which moves quickly along conveyor belts) that could damage equipment. Furniture, scrap metal, and other large or sharp objects can injure sorting staff.

Biohazards like pet waste or leftover food, and chemical hazards like fluorescent light bulbs can have the potential to cause serious illness to the workers that handle them.

Plastic film and bags are surprisingly detrimental; they get tangled in machinery, and workers that remove them may not see potential hazards under or in the bags.

2. Increased transportation (more fuel emissions)

As mentioned, any non-accepted items collected get sorted out. They then need to be taken to a landfill. This adds an extra trip to dispose of things that could’ve been collected by the residential garbage trucks already on the road. It ends up taking two trips to end up in the same place it would have had it been just put in the garbage bin.

3. Contamination of accepted recyclables

Perfectly good recyclables occasionally don’t get recycled due to contamination. This typically happens in one of three ways:

a) Nesting – When different types of materials are placed inside each other (e.g., a soup can inside a cereal box) which can prevent sorters from putting them into the correct stream.

b) Improperly bagging recycling – In many communities, it’s ok to put your recycling in clear bags. But if they’re put into black or opaque bags, staff can’t see whether it’s recycling or garbage, and they typically won’t open them for safety reasons.

In many communities, such as Winnipeg and Brandon, the only time a clear bag should be in the blue bin is if it contains shredded paper. Other materials can’t be bagged—not even in clear bags. This is because staff need to manually open and empty the bags before they reach the sorting line. There’s an enormous amount of recycling that needs to be processed daily, and if too many people bag their recycling, sorting staff won’t have time to safely open and empty every bag on top of all the other things they do to keep the facility running.

c) Excessive food and liquid – Metal, glass, and plastic recyclables aren’t easily affected by food or liquid contamination. As long as there’s not a lot of food or liquid in them, they’ll be baled and sent to end-markets that will clean them of any food, dirt, or other residue.

Paper and cardboard aren’t as resilient. Paper quality decreases when it absorbs food or liquids, and it can’t be washed like plastic and metal. For this reason, paper-based items can become contaminated if unemptied containers in the blue bin or recycling truck leak onto them.

4. Increased costs

Each problem above increases operational costs. Plus, when would-be recyclables are thrown out because they’re tainted by excessive food or liquid, it reduces revenue from material sales that help offset program costs.


How to reduce recycling contamination.

You can help reduce your community’s recycling contamination rate by following the steps below:

  • Make sure your containers are empty before you toss them into the blue bin.
  • Toss your recyclables into the bin loosely; don’t nest the materials (i.e., stuff them into one another) and don’t bag them unless your community’s program permits.
  • Don’t put anything in your blue bin that your community does not accept.

When in doubt, check the Recyclepedia. It shows you what can go in your blue bin and what can’t. It will tell you any special recycling instructions, and let you know if other recycling options are available for items that can’t go in your blue bin.


Top 10 most common contaminants found in Manitoba recycling.

DO NOT put these in your blue bin:

  • Styrofoam
  • Disposable paper beverage cups
  • Coffee pods
  • Clothing and textiles
  • Compostable packaging
  • Pots and pans
  • Aluminum foil and plates
  • Paper towels, tissues and napkins
  • Plastic pouches and laminates (e.g., chip bags, bread bags)
  • Ceramics

Other common types of contamination that can be recycled or safely disposed at depots and/or retailers, but not in your blue bin:

Author: Joel Larson

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