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Why you’re recycling wrong

Just a small amount of contamination can ruin recycling.

Knowing what you can and can’t recycle isn’t easy. But when people put items that can’t be recycled into the blue bin, they can turn entire hauls of otherwise recyclable materials into trash.

People try to recycle everything: Waste management workers find bowling balls, batteries, Christmas lights, animal carcasses, even dirty diapers. By 2018, about 25 percent of items that Americans were trying to recycle were considered “contaminated” and therefore trash. And the more contaminated recyclables that enter recycling plants, the more likely a recycling operator will send the entire haul, including items that could be recycled, to a landfill.

So why is this happening? Much of the answer has to do with a shift in the way Americans recycle. Consumers used to do more sorting of their own recycling: Metal, glass, paper, and plastic were separated before put out on the curb for collection. In the 1990s and 2000s, municipalities started shifting toward “single stream” recycling. Consumers could put everything in one bin, and machines and workers would sort the materials after collection at recovery facilities.

While single-stream recycling is much more convenient, there’s evidence that when people put all their recycling into just one bin, they’re more likely to throw trash in there too.

Watch the video above to learn more about how you can be a better recycler and reduce recycling contamination. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.