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  • There is nothing like a hot cup of tea in the morning.

  • That is, until I'm done, and I have to decide what to do with my cup.

  • Can I recycle it?

  • Is that a trick question?

  • Yeah, this is a great question.

  • I just figure you can recycle anything that's cardboard-esque.

  • That's not right!

  • I can't recycle this?

  • Knowing what you can and can't recycle isn't easy.

  • The rules depend on where you live.

  • And there are hundreds of products and materials where the rules aren't always clear.

  • Pizza boxes?

  • I hear that that's not recyclable.

  • I don't know if that's like a legend, an urban legend or something.

  • Paper towels?

  • My roommate and I actually have this discussion where I'm like, I'll throw paper towels in there.

  • And she's like, "I don't think you can recycle that" and she'll pick them out.

  • Like, I don't know, it's paper.

  • Bubble wrap mailers.

  • I don't know, this is so hard!

  • The confusion means that things that are actually garbage still end up in the recycling stream.

  • About 25% of what Americans try to recycle can't actually be recycled.

  • Waste management experts say what's going on here is something called "aspirational recycling".

  • When people are unsure if an item can be recycled, they recycle it, because it feels like the right thing to do.

  • And while our intentions are good, this behavior isn't harmless.

  • Even small amounts of contamination can turn entire hauls of otherwise recyclable materials into trash.

  • And the problem has been growing.

  • The rate of recycling contamination more than doubled in the last decade.

  • So, why is this happening?

  • Well, it is at least in part due to a major shift in how Americans recycled.

  • Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, municipalities implemented "single stream" recycling programs.

  • Paper, metal, plastic, and glass no longer needed to be sorted.

  • They could all live in one bin.

  • Communities quickly adopted the practice and, by 2014, 80% of all curbside recycling programs in the US were single stream.

  • The problem is, there's evidence that when we put all our recycling into one bin, we're more likely to throw trash in there along with it.

  • Take two neighboring counties in Florida, for example:

  • Palm Beach County, where residents must pre-sort their recyclables, had a contamination rate of only 9%,

  • while Broward County's single-stream program had a contamination rate of 30%.

  • Single-stream recycling takes the responsibility to sort off of the individual and shifts it to Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs, where trash gets sorted out from recycling by machines.

  • But also by workers, who often have to remove waste by hand.

  • Pizza boxes contaminated with grease, electronics that aren't processed at standard recycling facilities.

  • Even the likes of Christmas lights, animal carcasses, and bowling balls.

  • In Portland, workers remove thousands of dirty diapers every month.

  • In a perfect world, everyone would just know how to recycle correctly.

  • But short of that, there's something we can all start doing differently right now.

  • Unless you are absolutely sure, don't recycle it.

  • In fact, recycling education campaigns encourage the opposite: When in doubt, the best option may be to throw it out.

  • Most people want to do the right thing, and sometimes the way to be a good recycler is to throw stuff in the trash.

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There is nothing like a hot cup of tea in the morning.

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B1 US Vox recycling recycle contamination stream trash

Why you're recycling wrong

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    Vivian Chen posted on 2019/07/02
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