An estimated 25 percent of recycled materials in the United States are contaminated, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association. These improperly prepared or misplaced items can complicate the sorting process or — worse yet — render the entire batch useless and destined for the landfill.

Not only does this have a negative impact on the environment, but it can also be a financial burden for businesses. In New York, for example, Department of Sanitation inspectors will fine companies for having contaminated recycling bins.

Emily Gove, corporate director of sustainability for Building Maintenance Service, a building service contractor based in New York, says the stricter legislation has helped raise awareness about the importance of recycling — and recycling correctly.

"There's still some resistance, but in general people see recycling as the easiest and most visible way of bettering sustainability in the office," says Gove. Nevertheless, people's good intentions can sometimes do more harm than good.

"People want to recycle," says Keith Schneringer, director of channel marketing for WAXIE Sanitary Supply, San Diego. "That's part of the reason we have issues; they don't want to throw anything away."

This aversion to placing waste in the garbage has lead to "hopeful recycling," a process in which a person tosses an item in the recycling bin in the hopes that it will be recycled.

"While the person means well, the item not only can't be recycled but could also contaminate the stuff that could have been recycled," says Schneringer.

Trash Talking

Common misconceptions can sabotage customers' recycling efforts. The following materials are frequently misplaced in recycling bins, potentially contaminating the load.

Jan/san paper. Paper towels, toilet paper and tissues are never recyclable. People often try to recycle paper towels along with office paper, says Laura Craven, director of communications and marketing, Imperial Dade, Jersey City, New Jersey.

Plastic film. Think chip bags and candy wrappers. In most municipalities these are not recyclable; however, there is a solution for diverting film plastics, says Emily Gove, corporate director of sustainability for Building Maintenance Service, New York. TerraCycle, for example, supplies boxes and shipping labels to companies so that they can collect film waste and return it for repurposing.

Coffee cups. These often end up in the paper recycling bin, but sometimes they do not belong there because they have a wax liner.

"There is a lot of confusion about whether or not paper coffee cups can be recycled," says Gove. "It depends on the hauler's capabilities and the recycling policy of the building you're working in. That's why it's always best to familiarize yourself with the building policies for recycling and waste management."

Compostable packaging. People mistakenly think that compostable packaging is recyclable.

"If you're going to purchase compostable items you need to participate in a composting program," says Gove.

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Distributors Must Educate Customers On Recycling Guidelines