Is your recycling doing more harm than good?

Experts say improper recycling is damaging the industry's profitablility

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When Highlands Ranch residents' recycling is picked up every other week, it disappears from the driveway but begins an entirely new, complex journey.

It takes about a month for the materials to travel from the curb, go through the sorting process and eventually be shipped to factories in countries such as Vietnam and Thailand.

In recent years, this process has become much more complicated and untenably expensive for one main reason: people are recycling incorrectly.

“I think people want to do the right thing,” said Aaron Bradley with Waste Connections. “But they're just not fully educated on what the repercussions are of not recycling correctly.”

Many people don't realize that some of the things they toss into their recycling bins are actually contaminants and can compromise the process, Bradley said. These non-recyclables must be hand-picked by laborers and taken to a landfill. The more contaminants in a batch, the less valuable the materials are for recycling, he said.

That's part of why in the past few years, Waste Connections, which serves the majority of Highlands Ranch, has gone from getting paid for each ton of recyclable materials to being required to pay just to process it. There are many reasons for this change in profit margins, but one main explanation is the high number of contaminants, which causes processing costs to balloon.

So how can Highlands Ranch residents ensure their recycling is helping more than it harms? By learning the right way to do it.

“We would be better to recycle less but better and cleaner,” Bradley said. “When in doubt, throw it away.”

Some common contaminants that Waste Connections finds people attempting to recycle include plastic bags, pizza boxes, items with food stains, milk jug lids and wet cardboard. Some of these items are contaminants because they can't be repurposed and others actually damage the sorting machines.

While recycled cans are very valuable, they must be washed out so there isn't leftover food contaminating them.

“We love aluminum,” Bradley said.

Waste Connections uses a single-stream system, which means residents don't have to sort through their correctly selected recyclables.

Things that can be placed in the bins include magazines, mail, newspapers, paper egg cartons, lidless plastic bottles and tubs, rinsed cans and paper bags.

Items that can't go in include scrap metal, plastic six-pack holders, frozen food containers, light bulbs, paper towels or napkins and to-go containers.

More information on recycling guidelines is available at wcdenver.com/residential/#recycling.

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