No ‘wishful thinking’ when it comes to recycling

Published 10:37 pm Friday, November 2, 2018

By Wayne Jones and Dawn Oleksy

You’ve seen the chasing arrows on the bottom of that Styrofoam cup and the tiny number that sits inside the little triangle. It appears to be recyclable, so you toss it in your recycling cart with hopes that it will soon be transformed into a useful, eco-friendly product.

Without realizing it, you have just contaminated the recycling stream — and your recycling provider would like for you to brush up on what is acceptable, and what is not, when it comes to recycling.

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In the recycling industry, the scenario we described is referred to as “wishful recycling” — attempting to recycle items that are not accepted locally, or just not recyclable at all. And the items that recycling providers do not accept are called “contaminants,” which disrupt the sorting process and can clog up the machines. All plastic products have the chasing arrows symbol, but that doesn’t make them recyclable. Neither is the takeout pizza box with the oily, cheesy remnants stuck to the bottom.

So why aren’t all items with a triangle recyclable? Because recycling is more than a convenience or the right thing to do; it’s a business. After your recycling provider has sorted the items from your curbside bin, a buyer is needed to purchase the materials. Without a buyer, the recyclables have nowhere to go. Recycling also offsets the amount you pay for waste disposal.

Like any business, recycling is subject to market changes, and the U.S. recycling industry is experiencing more supply than demand for all recycled materials. Recycling buyers are being more selective than ever due to the tightened contamination standards set by China in early 2018.

Local audits of recycling carts showed that nearly 40 percent of what was collected at the curb was unacceptable. Some of the most common contaminants are Styrofoam, garden hoses, metal wire, yard debris, diapers, plastic bags, toys, clothing and dirty take-out containers.

With America Recycles Day just around the corner, we would like for everyone to become familiar with what is accepted in your community’s recycling program and follow this two-step approach to keep contamination low and our recycling programs strong:

Recycle Right

  • Check with your recycling provider to find out which items are accepted in your recycling bin
  • Know that clean plastic bottles, cans, paper and cardboard are almost always accepted
  • Don’t bag your recyclables; leave items loose in the bin so they can be sorted easily
  • Plastic bags are not accepted in your curbside bin; take them back to the grocery store
  • Take rechargeable batteries and electronics to a drop-off facility or collection event

Make Better Choices

  • Consider if an item can be reused or donated before you trash it
  • Think about packaging and disposal options when making purchasing decisions
  • Reduce waste by avoiding single-use plastics, such as straws, plastic water bottles and plastic bags whenever possible
  • Pack a waste-free lunch
  • Buy recycled products

America Recycles Day is Nov. 15. On behalf of our colleagues on the region-wide Recycling & Beautification Committee, we hope you will take advantage of the many America Recycles Day happenings around Hampton Roads. To find a special collection or event near you, visit

 Wayne Jones, litter control coordinator with Suffolk Public Works, and Dawn Oleksy, with James City County, lead the Recycling & Beautification Committee of The region-wide public awareness and education campaign of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission is powered by 17 cities and counties in Hampton Roads.