Recycling 101: Best Practices to Keep Your Recycling Bin Contamination-Free

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While we hope a lot of people will sign up to learn more about recycling, Recycling 101 is designed to help organisations educate their staff by sharing educational information - to support education while reinforcing that waste is a serious focus for your business. Learn more about how it can help here.

Best Practices to Keep Your Recycling Bin Contamination-Free

Even those of us who do our best to reduce waste are facing the incredibly complex nature of the recycling industry. Not to mention, recycling is so different depending on where you are, so we can’t be too specific on what is and isn’t recyclable.

So we’ll go over some best practices when it comes to recycling so you and your team can avoid unintentionally contaminating your recycling bin.

But first, what is contamination?

Simply, anything in a recycling bin that shouldn't be there. This includes recyclable materials that should be in a different bin, food or liquid waste or non-recyclable materials. Contamination causes issues down the line for recyclers, the materials require additional sorting, can damage machinery, slow processing and depending on how bad the contamination is recyclable materials can end up being sent to landfill or for incineration. By following our tips below, we can help our recyclers by keeping the quality of our recyclables high.

1. Clean Your Recyclables

Rinsing your recyclables may seem like a small step, but it’s one of the most common causes of contamination. Leftover food bits or residual liquids can often make containers unsuitable for recycling. Worse, if someone introduces a significant kind of liquid or food waste like a half-finished smoothie the entire bin might become unrecyclable.

Furthermore, residual food and liquid can interfere with the machinery used during recycling, potentially causing damage or disruption. So, before you pop that empty pasta sauce jar or soda can into the recycling bin, make sure to give it a quick rinse. It doesn't have to be perfectly clean, just free from most remnants. This simple action can greatly improve the efficiency of recycling processes.

IMG 2192 Bales of milk bottles ready for recycling at Aotearoa New Zealand Made

2. Don't Bag Recyclables

No matter how your recycling is collected - a skip bin, a wheelie bin, or a clear plastic bag - all recycling should be loose inside the provided container for collection. No bags inside of bags or bags inside of bins. This means if you have a bag inside your internal bin, it needs to be decanted once it's taken to the collection point.

Recycling centres or Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) are fast-moving factories, often dealing with tonnes of materials on any given day. The systems are a mixture of automated and manual processes and opening additional bags is time-consuming. Often, these are removed from the system and become waste - especially if the bag isn’t clear - who knows what could be hiding inside?

3. Avoid "Wish cycling"

Wish cycling, also called aspirational recycling, is the practice of putting things in the recycling that you’re unsure about. It is most common with plastics because of the complexity of plastic recycling, but it can also happen with other products like heat-proof glass. It just ends up causing problems at the recycling facility. Learn more about wish-cycling here.

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4. Understand What's Recyclable in Your Area

The best thing you can do to avoid contamination is to learn the regional or provider-specific recycling requirements. Different MRFs will have different rules depending on how they separate and organise the recyclables that they receive - and how the materials are utilised.

Once you learn what your council or waste management provider's requirements are, you’re more likely to get it right and less likely to contaminate your recycling.

5. Ignore Contradictory On-package Labels

This one might be the most surprising, but if you are up-to-date on your local recycling requirements and an on-package label says differently, follow your gut. For example, in New Zealand, recycling is different depending on where you are, and we often receive Australian labels. Until recycling and on-package instructions are formalised in your region, it's best to follow what you’ve learnt from your local recycler.

Similarly, if there is signage printed and posted above bins in public spaces or your workplace, follow the posted instructions. They may have speciality recycling streams, have a different recycling provider or programs for the materials.

BINS 7495 Office recycling signage at the Sea Museum in Sydney

6. Keep Paper Clean, Dry and Additive Free

Paper is a fibre so every time it gets wet, the fibres start to break down. For this reason, it's always encouraged for you to store paper recycling in a dry space. Similarly, avoid food or liquids contaminating this stream. This is often why paper is collected separately from other materials and pizza boxes aren’t recyclable if they’re heavily soiled with grease or cheese. Similarly, single-use papers like paper towels or tissues can’t be recycled as the fibres are too small and often contaminated.

Lastly, paper that has been connected with another material isn’t recyclable. Examples of this include:

  • Paper that has been painted
  • Paper that is layered with plastic, e.g. coffee cups
  • Paper that has wax on it, e.g. Tetra Paks, or crayons
  • Remove binders and plastic protective sheets before recycling

However, while we’re talking about paper, one common misconception is that glossy paper isn’t recyclable, e.g. magazines or smooth cardboard boxes. However, this is incorrect, these materials are treated with an additive to achieve the finish - if you can easily tear the paper by hand, it’s usually recyclable.

7. Remove Non-recyclable Parts

Lastly, if your item has non-recyclable parts, remove them before recycling like the pump on the hand-soap bottle or the perforated plastic sleeve around some bottles. By removing these parts, you're ensuring that the recyclable components can be properly processed - similar to the bagged recyclables in the fast-moving environment of an MRF, there usually isn’t someone available to separate these materials.

8. Share What You Know

Lastly, if you’re up-to-date on recycling knowledge, the best thing you can do is share your knowledge!


Recycling is complex, and we all make mistakes, but we hope these tips help reduce contamination in the recycling bin. If you’re not subscribed already, you can register to receive Recycling 101 monthly via email here.

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