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Why you may be hurting, not helping, when you recycle

Posted at 6:29 PM, Apr 21, 2017

Recycling is one of the easiest ways Americans can pitch in and help save the environment. But recyclers who don't pay attention could be doing more harm than good.

According to Ed von Bleichert, the Sustainability and Resiliency Program Manager at the University of Colorado Boulder, there are plenty of items that should head to the compost pile or to the landfill but instead end up in recycling centers. And it's that mislabeling of items that's affecting recycling centers more than people imagine.

"It's not necessarily going to destroy the process but it is making it more difficult," von Bleichert says.

He says it takes more time to extract recyclables and they often get contaminated.

"We are spending more time on the operating costs," von Bleichert says. "We are potentially lowering the value and if markets are already low you might really have a significant impact on the recycler."

That's not the only issue recycling centers are facing. Although Americans are recycling more than ever, profits from those items are down. Manufacturers are paying less for paper and plastic and people are recycling different things.

"Ten years ago there were a lot more newspapers being read, and paper is a very profitable part of the waste stream," David Biderman, CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America said. "As the paper goes away we see an increase in plastic. Plastic is less valuable as a commodity."

As people recycle fewer newspapers, they are recycling more cardboard boxes. Experts say recycling is worth the extra effort it takes to figure out what goes where.

"When in doubt, figure it out," von Bleichert says. "Just throwing it in the bin isn't enough."