Reducing Recycling Contamination

When recycling streams get contaminated, the materials can’t be reused and end up in landfills. For some facilities, this contamination results in costly fines. For example, New York Department of Sanitation will fine a company $100 for each contaminated receptacle.

Building service contractors and in-house cleaning managers can help facilities adhere to recycling policies, says Emily Gove, corporate director of sustainability and training for Building Maintenance Service (BMS), New York.

The first step is creating signage differentiating recycling from waste. Also, clearly label each receptacle, either as paper, glass/metal/plastics or waste.

One way to avoid contamination (and multiple fines) is to limit the number of receptacles. Instead of giving each occupant his or her own receptacle, use three communal bins: one each for waste, paper and glass/metal/plastics. Place these receptacles in a centralized location, for example, on the way to the breakroom or restrooms. It’s even recommended to get rid of paper only desk side bins as these are easily contaminated, says Gove.

Once set up, conduct a walk-through with custodial staff so they know which bins are for recycling vs. trash. Also have a mandatory training session with tenants on recycling policies to help avoid fines. Cleaning providers could also lead tenants through a waste audit. This event really open tenants’ eyes and helps them understand where items belong in the waste stream.

Proper recycling is one way to avoid contamination, but a more radical method is adopting zero waste measures.

“The next frontier is not creating the waste at all,” says Gove.

As an example, paper coffee cups are often found in recycling bins, but, in fact, these cups are not recyclable. In a BMS portfolio of 35 buildings, the contractor was removing 2,000 pounds of paper cups per day. Not only is this a lot of waste, but its likely some of it will contaminate the recyclables.

For an easy fix, facilities could provide occupants with reusable coffee cups, says Gove.