Ask Eartha: Don’t be part of the recycling contamination problem |

Ask Eartha: Don’t be part of the recycling contamination problem

A new recycling center is open off River Drive, past the outlet shops, in Silverthorne as pictured March 10.
Liz Copan /

Dear Eartha,
I was at the Frisco Recycling Center recently and noticed bubble wrap and plastic bags in one of the plastic recycling containers. Are these items accepted?

The short answer to your question is no, neither plastic bags nor bubble wrap are accepted at the local recycling centers. If left at the recycling centers, plastic bags and bubble wrap are considered contamination. That’s the industry term for nonrecyclables mixed with recyclable material.

Contamination can include dirty or food-filled containers, unaccepted items like the plastic bags or bubble wrap, and trash. It’s an issue that significantly reduces the value of recycling, and too much contamination can send an entire load of recycling to the landfill.

According to Waste Management, the nation’s average contamination rate, or the percentage of what we throw in the recycling bin that’s actually trash, sits at roughly 25%. A study last summer showed Summit County’s single-stream contamination at 38%. Ouch.

What is recycling contamination?

Local recycling centers accept plastic Nos. 1 and 2 bottles and jugs, aluminum, tin, paper, cardboard, glass, cartons and food scraps. Anything else is a contaminate (aka: garbage). For example, if you collect all your No. 1 water bottles in a plastic bag, then throw the bag into the No. 1 plastic bin, that bag is a contaminate, and it’s highly likely that all your hard work is going straight to the trash. Just skip the plastic bag altogether!

Remember, the recycling centers accept Nos. 1 and 2 bottles and jugs only — think items with screw-tops like laundry detergent or ketchup bottles (but pitch the lids). This means that strawberry and salad containers, takeout containers, bubble wrap and hard plastic sleds are not recyclable, regardless of the little number stamped on the bottom.

Even recyclables such as paper and glass can act as contaminates if you put them in the wrong bin.

Let’s talk paperboard. That’s the technical term for brown paper packaging like cereal boxes. Paperboard and brown paper bags go in the cardboard bin. When placed in the paper bin, that cereal box becomes contamination.

Why is contamination a problem?

Recycling is a business, largely based on whether someone wants those recyclables to make new things. Think about your favorite pair of long underwear for a moment. Crazy as it sounds, many No. 1 plastic bottles spend their next lives as fleece.

The folks who transform bottles into fleece are called end markets. These end markets want clean plastic bottles, not your greasy takeout containers, not your broken sleds or plastic packaging, and certainly not your foam egg cartons. A lot of contamination in a load of No. 1 bottles significantly increases recycling costs because of the added time required to separate the good from the bad. In the worst cases, that contamination causes everything to end up in the trash.

Why is this a big deal? If end markets can’t get the recycled material they need, they’ll resort to using new material, thus defeating the point of recycling completely.

How can I help?

The most important thing you can do is read and understand local recycling guidelines. And remember the golden rule of recycling: when in doubt, throw it out. If you find yourself questioning something, perhaps the plastic packaging that came with your new toothbrush, do some research.  In Summit County, that’s as simple as calling the High Country Conservation Center at 970-668-5703. Staff there is available to answer your recycling questions from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Oh, and about that toothbrush packaging? It’s trash.

The conservation center also offers an online tool — affectionally dubbed the Recycling Robot — that lets you search any item to see if it’s recyclable locally. So, if you really want to recycle those plastic bags, the Recycling Robot will tell you that most grocery stores take them.

If you prefer a little more personal guidance — physically distanced, of course — join conservation center staff and volunteers at the recycling centers. They’ll help you understand what’s accepted in our local programs. Visit for June dates, recycling tips and free printouts that you can post at your home or office.

Recycling is a great habit, but we need to remember that trying to recycle the wrong materials can cause big problems. I challenge you to be part of the solution and recycle the right way.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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