Recycling Mythbusters: Sorting recyclables

February 11th, 2014 | Kyle Reed

By Mythbuster Kyle Reed

Who are the Recycling Mythbusters?

We are Kyle “Reedcycler” Reed, Amanda “Jill of All Trades” Abbott and Rachel “Waste Watcher” Tholl. This term we will be introducing you to some recycling-based myths, and busting them so you don’t have to.

From left to right: Amanda Abbott, Rachel Tholl, and Kyle Reed.

From left to right: Amanda Abbott, Rachel Tholl, and Kyle Reed.

Together we are the Recycling Mythbusters.

We don’t just tell the myths, we put them to rest.

Myth: Items placed in a recycling bin are sorted individually.

There is a term we like to use at Campus Recycling for individuals who recycle items regardless if they’re accepted in a recycling system or not. This term is “wishful recyclers.” While such people may have the best intentions, it doesn’t change the fact that some items just aren’t accepted at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF).

Here’s the thing: It’s not anyone’s job at a MRF to sort through each individual item to determine whether or not it is recyclable. Instead, workers are given a specific item or type of item which is a common contaminant to remove during the sorting process. Some examples include: plastic bags, coffee cups, and clamshells.

Much of the sorting process is automated, or is facilitated by a handful of workers to make sure things run smoothly. This video demonstrates the entire process at a MRF, showing how the items are sorted, and what they are made into.


Common contaminants are removed by workers at a MRF. Click to view larger.

As you can see, recyclables are moving along a conveyor belt at breathtaking speeds. There isn’t enough time to investigate an individual item to determine if it could be recycled or not.

Other times, a wishful recycler will put a commonly removed item in the recycling, because it was made of a material which was recyclable. For example, let’s say someone put a plastic clamshell in the recycling here in Corvallis, because the resin code of this particular clamshell was the same as that of one of the four shapes of containers collected. Once the clamshell hit the sorting facility, it would be removed anyway, since clamshells are more commonly made of recyclables that possess no market value, and run the risk of food contamination.

The cost of recycling increases each time a contaminant enters a MRF, due to the need for removal. This, in turn, makes the process less efficient and economically sustainable.

View OSUs online recycle guide

View OSU's online recycle guide

For these reasons, it’s important that we as recyclers know that what were are putting into the recycling is actually recyclable, as well as keep up to date on any changes that may occur. For students on campus, visit our OSU recycle guide to learn about what is recyclable on campus. Residents living off campus can check out  Republic Service’s recycling guide to see what is accepted in the curbside bins.

Next week, we’ll take a look at what happens when contaminants are not removed, and the costs and damages that are caused.

This post is part of our “Recycling Mythbusters” blog series, where we focus on busting common misconceptions about recycling. Tune in every week to learn more.

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