Waste contamination 101

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As ironic as it may sound, the items we throw out as waste have the risk of contaminating future resources. For most people, waste is an “out of sight, out of mind” topic. But let’s be real – waste in the US is more out of control than anything! 

Waste contamination starts when people place their waste in the wrong bin. When those items end up in our recycling and compost collection, they lead to problems in recycling facilities and our soil.

Contamination in recycling

recycling waste contamination

You know that stat highlighting that only 9% of plastics have been recycled? Well, *some* of that is on us as consumers. It’s hard to say if the recycling system is broken or if it just wasn’t designed for the massive amounts of consumption and waste our society produces. Probably both. The good news is that there are easy solutions that anyone can do when it comes to contamination issues like wishcycling and dirty containers.


Whether or not you’ve heard of it before, chances are you’ve done it. For decades, we’ve been taught to think that recycling is the single most best amazing thing you can do to protect the environment. That guilt, or better yet wishful thinking, leads us to do some illogical things.

Wishcycling is the act of placing items in the recycling bin that can’t actually be recycled because you hope or want to believe that something positive will happen. But what you’re really doing is contaminating the recycling waste stream.

blend of plastic

Wishcycling actively makes recycling processes harder and less efficient. Plastic bags clog sorting machinery, needles and razor blades injure employees, and batteries leak toxic chemicals onto everything else. When we add cheap plastics like #3 through #7 to the recycling bin, they get mixed together and ultimately discarded as low quality.

How can you avoid wishcycling? It’s pretty easy! Check to see what your recycling facility actually accepts before putting items in the recycling bin. You can use Earth911 to search by item to find alternative options too. Just because an item has the chasing arrows recycling symbol on it does NOT mean it is recyclable curbside. 

Why dirty recycling is bad too:

Contamination in recycling can also be something as small as food residue on a container. Although this may seem like a minor fault to the average consumer, it causes serious problems at the recycling facility. 

dirty recycling contamination

First: that material is no longer recyclable because it is dirty. In other words, taking that extra step to properly empty and rinse containers will help prevent recyclables from ending up in a landfill. 

Second: food residue can result in mold, which creates an unsanitary work environment at recycling facilities. Let’s not harm our fellow community members with our negligence.

Contamination in Compost: 

waste contamination compost

Composting is an amazing way of diverting our organic waste from the landfill and instead turn it into soil fertilizer. Healthy compost results in healthy soil, happy plants, and no smell. 

By incorrectly adding material to the compost pile, toxins could be released, the compost might smell, and animals could be attracted to the compost pile. Worse, the material won’t break down into compost at all!

Bioplastics aren’t the solution, they’re a problem

Bioplastics popped up in the packaging scene a few years ago and were marketed as the solution to single-use plastics. However, we’ve now learned that bioplastics are causing more harm than good.


First: bioplastics take much longer to decompose in the real world than in scientific testing. Even if they are BPI or ATSM certified, if your compost operations don’t get hot enough, they won’t break down quickly like food scraps. There are very few, if any, compost facilities across the country that do have the technology to decompose bioplastics.

Second: bioplastics have been found to contain harmful forever chemicals like PFAs. So when they do break down in compost operations, they’re leaching toxic chemicals into what would otherwise be organic fertilizer.

Third: bioplastics are made from GMO crops like corn and potatoes. Tons of resources go into growing the plant and then turning them into plastic-like polymers. Since they don’t belong in compost, they are then buried in landfills where they emit methane, which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What can we do as consumers to avoid bioplastic contamination? Bring your own reusables and ask for them to be refilled! Reach out to the company whose product you’re using and tell them about the issues with bioplastics. Confirm with your composting facility what items they do and don’t accept.

Greenwashing language of biodegradable and compostable

Similar to bioplastics, greenwashing is a major problem for contamination at composting facilities. When companies advertise their products as biodegradable or compostable when they really aren’t, consumers are reasonably confused on how to dispose of them.

There’s also confusion about the difference between the terms biodegradable and compostable. Biodegradable means that something is capable of being broken down into its source elements by microorganisms over time. Compostable means that something of organic matter can be broken down to use as nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Companies are marketing their products positively as biodegradable without the context that it may take thousands of years for them to decompose into a more toxic item. FTC regulations about green marketing claims typically aren’t enforced until companies are actively sued for their greenwashing tactics.

What can we do as consumers to avoid greenwashing contamination? Use your voice! Hold the companies responsible for their greenwashing claims by notifying them of your disappointment and boycotting their products. Let your local retailer know that their packaging is misleading, chances are they might not know.

Key takeaways to avoid contamination:

1. Reduce the amount of waste you actively need to dispose of.

2. When it’s time to dispose of it, research how and where it should go.

3. There should be proper signage on every waste bin to educate others.

Want someone to teach your organization about contamination and how to avoid it? Connect with us. We love talkin’ trash and educating others!

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