The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 1:00 am

Know what to recycle

Wrong items in bins can cause contamination

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

When it comes to recycling, 83% of Fort Wayne residents do it. That's the great news.

But an average of 2 out of 10 residents who do recycle do it the wrong way. And while that doesn't seem like much, as the old saying goes, one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

“It affects the whole program as a whole,” says Craig Lutz, area senior manager for Republic Services, which handles the city's recycling.

Lutz says that if one person places contaminated items into their recycling bin and that in turn gets dumped into the recycling truck during pick up, it can ruin the good materials that have already been collected.

In many residents' efforts to avoid waste, they are too often tossing everything from clothes, garden hoses, bicycle tires and even diapers into the bins, ignoring recycling rules and causing problems when it comes to unwanted stuff that gums up the machines, says Matt Gratz, solid waste manager for the city of Fort Wayne. One of the biggest offenders: Plastic grocery bags, Gratz says. (For those who do this, you need to take these items back to the grocery stores to be recycled.)

Lutz says it's as bad as it has ever been when it comes to what can be salvaged from the collected recycling bins. Currently, about 25% of items placed in recycling bins can't be recycled.

Many people operate on “wish cycling,” Lutz says. They toss items in the recycling bins in the hopes that they will be recycled or hauled off. But instead, it causes contamination of other recyclable items, damages machines and poses dangers to workers trying to sort out the items.

Recycling contamination is when incorrect items or materials are put into the system or when the right items are prepared the wrong way, such as food left in containers, a greasy pizza box or recyclables put in plastic bags. 

At one time, residents were required to sort out their recyclables in separate bins, such as plastic, paper and glass, to make it easier for pickup and sorting. However, that all changed when many recycling programs went to single stream systems that allow residents to place all of their recyclables into one bin. And while that shift increased the number of people recycling, it also has created a larger problem when people ignore the rules and instead throw just about anything into the bin, thinking it will be recycled.

Lutz says the recycling market has flipped in the last 18 months. Because the commodity markets have dropped, the acceptable contamination rate is higher. The rate now is 0.5%; more than a year ago it was less than 3%. That means that 99.5% of the recyclables must be pure.

When items can't be recycled, they end up in the landfill.

The lower contamination rate is an impossible goal to meet unless residents become educated on what to recycle and what not to put in the bins, Lutz says.

He says residents need to get back to basics. Lutz says residents should think bottles, jugs, cardboard and paper when recycling. However, even those items can cause contamination if residents don't pay attention to the recycling rules.

Lutz says there are five guidelines residents should follow when recycling: Know what to throw; empty and rinse out recyclable items and dry; when in doubt, throw it out; and keep it loose (don't place recyclables in a plastic bag).

Residents should look for the recycle symbol to know whether an item is recyclable. In addition, plastics will have a number in the symbol, which will correspond with the rules listed at for what's recyclable.

Such items as microwavable food containers are not recyclable. And that bag of fast food with fast food containers left in it – think again if it has grease or other leftover food from your french fries or burger.

But that's not all workers see that isn't supposed to be in the bin. They also have had paint, motor oil, grease cooking oil, plastic hangers, lawn trimmings and packing material, especially Styrofoam, from inside all those Amazon boxes. 

The recycling trucks do have video cameras in the back of the truck, Gratz says, but it can be difficult for the driver to see what is being dumped into the truck once a large amount of recyclables have been collected. And once a bad batch goes in, it's too late.

“We're at a crossroads,” Lutz says. He says the longevity of the program is predicated on dropping the contamination rates. And that will only happen if residents start taking better care before they toss items into the bins.

What to recycle

Not sure what you should recycle and what you shouldn't? The website is a good first stop, or calling 311. But here is a mini guide to get you started:


Plastics (those that have the numbers 1 through 7 on the recycle symbol), jugs and bottles. Make sure to take the caps off the jugs and bottles. Also, rinse and dry such items as milk or orange juice jugs and bottles of pop. If liquid remains, it can contaminate other items when it is crushed by machines.

Glass that is clear, brown, green and blue. Again, remember to rinse and dry before placing in bins.

Metal cans that are steel, tin, bi-metal and aluminum.

Newspaper, inserts, phone books, cardboard, magazines, catalogs, paperback books and brochures. If you are putting your newspaper in the bin, make sure to take it out of its plastic bag. That will gum up the machines.

Paper-food boxes, cartons and containers. Just make sure that there is no food residue or grease on the items, such as your pizza box or fast food containers.

White paper, junk mail, envelopes (including the ones with windows), file folders, greeting cards and shredded paper.

Aluminum foil and pans (again make sure there is no food residue).


No window glass, mirrors, kitchen dishes, drinking glasses or ceramics.

No plastic toys or hangers.

No plastic bags such as trash, grocery, bread bags, newspaper bags or dry cleaning bags.

No pots and pans, scrap metal or electronics. Electronics should be recycled in a different way. You can find that information on the website or by calling 311.

No tissue or toilet paper, napkins, paper towels or paper plates and cups.

No wood, lawn trimmings or branches.

No clothes or shoes.

No liquid waste such as paint (including the cans), motor oil and cooking oil. Again, there are places to safely dispose of these items. The city has a Tox Away Day in which many items can be disposed of. The next one is Oct. 12.

No light bulbs.

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