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Recycling + Contamination

What happens if you don’t recycle properly? Most people believe it goes straight to landfill or the incinerator, but it’s not quite that simple.

Contamination is essentially anything in a recycling bin that shouldn’t be there. After recycling is collected it’s sorted at a material recovery facility (MRF). Each facility has its own way of sorting recycling, each with its own pros and cons. What happens to contaminated recycling depends on what the contamination is.

In short, yes, there’s a chance that recycling will end up in landfill/incinerated if it’s heavily contaminated, but by following a few basic principles we can make it easier for ourselves and the waste management companies. Such as; rising recyclables, not putting rubbish in your recycling bins and disposing of broken glass in a safe way in general waste.

Let's take a look at some of the most common forms of contamination and (generally) what this means.

Dirty recyclables

We should be rinsing our recyclables before placing them into a recycling bin, not as far as scrubbing but getting the majority of food and residue off. Recyclables are cleaned in the recycling process but not immediately, it often sits around a bit first. Further, if a container has a large amount of food or liquids in it they can contaminate other recyclables in the bag.

Often if a container is highly contaminated or dirty it will be removed from the recycling line and sent to landfill/the incinerator. If someone threw a half-full smoothie container in the recycling bin the whole bag may be sent to general waste.

One of the most contentious arguments around dirty recyclables is pizza boxes! The consensus is that so long as any food remnants are removed and it isn’t completely covered in grease they’re recyclable. If in doubt - rip it in half and recycle the clean side.

Broken glass

Generally, broken glass isn’t collected as it’s a hazard for those processing recycling and shards of glass can contaminate other recyclables. Particularly, paper and cardboard are easily contaminated by glass shards which can cause damage to machinery when recycled.

While we’re talking about glass, only glass produced for food packaging is readily recyclable ie. beer, wine or soft drink bottles, glass jars etc. Glass homewares such as glassware (wine or water glasses), pyrex measuring jugs etc are not collected in most curbside or workplace schemes as they’re recycled in a different manner.


More often than not recycling simply won’t be collected if it’s reasonably evident that there is general waste/rubbish in the bag. A recycler in the UK said it wasn’t uncommon to find nappies in the recycling!

If it is collected, often the entire bag is removed unless it is easily and hygienically removed. If a building continues to send out recycling with waste in their recycling bag they will usually be ‘blacklisted’ from the collection.

The wrong recyclables

This is a common one, recycling differs from place to place and we know it can be hard to get it right every time. This is made worse by wish-cycling, the practice of placing a questionable item into the recycling bin when you're unsure if it's recyclable or not. While this is done with the desire to recycle rather than waste it can cause issues for the recycler.

Often, the MRF is able to remove items they don’t recycle in the process - though some are harder than others. Depending on what the product is, it may be separated back into the correct stream, sent to another facility or be sent to landfill.

There are some materials that are harder to distinguish and can cause further issues. For example, with the rise of plant-based ‘bio-plastics’, it can be hard to distinguish these from PET in the recycling process. It’s important that these are composted (if this is available with your provider) or sent with general waste, otherwise, it can end up contaminating traditional plastic during recycling. Find out more about identifying recyclables by their codes here.

Do you have any questions on recycling and/or contamination? Let us know on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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