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Contaminated recycling a growing problem with holidays poised to add to the issue

Updated: Dec. 9, 2020 at 2:55 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Employees at the Sonoco recycling plant used by Wilmington and New Hanover County spend hours each day dealing with contaminated recycling.

They do so because, if the bundles of recycled material they take to market contain improper items, buyers will reject them, meaning extra shipping costs and time—making the entire process more expensive.

“It’s just a constant thing,” said plant manager Daniel Walker.

Recycling becomes “contaminated” when it contains items that cannot be recycled, whether it’s trash or food waste, or just items the plant doesn’t process.

Most of the time, Walker said, it isn’t because people don’t care.

“Mostly [the problem] isn’t, I would say, neglect to recycle properly,” he said. “It’s people who are wishful recycling. So they see something as being plastic, and they think that it’s recyclable because it’s plastic, but they aren’t taking the time to really look into...is this an item that we can take and actually market and get to a finished good product?”

Details from the City of Wilmington about how to avoid contaminated recycling.
Details from the City of Wilmington about how to avoid contaminated recycling.(WECT)

But sometimes the contamination is even more foul.

“We get a lot of baby diapers, dog waste, things like that, that once they come through your screens and go through your system, they end up contaminating everything,” Walker said.

The plant only accepts certain items and can’t process things like Styrofoam, plastic grocery bags or electronics, though other locations in the county can take those items.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves are not recyclable either, but are now frequently causing issues.

Around the holidays, Walker said, the contamination problem increases.

“It’s more or less like an ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’ is what I’d like to call it. So, you see a lot of toys coming in, a lot of clothing, a lot of food waste, things of that nature. So, it’s pretty much...you’re getting your new items and you’re throwing your old ones out, and it’s not being done properly.”

Another holiday offender: Christmas lights—the strands get caught in the machinery and tangle up the entire process.

There are ways to avoid causing contamination:

  • Familiarize yourself with what your recycling service accepts
  • Check items for what kind of materials they are made of, such as the number for plastic
  • Don’t put recycling in a plastic garbage bag, but if you must, use a clear one
  • Break down boxes and don’t place items within other items
  • Wash and dry plastic containers

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