The recycling stream is facing contamination issues. The problem is bigger than a few pizza boxes rimmed with cheese or a handful of plastic bags. The average contamination rate for communities and businesses nationwide is 25%, according to Waste Management.

That means roughly 1 in 4 items placed in recycling containers isn't recyclable. Too much contamination can land a load of recyclables in the landfill.

“So it’s just going to go to the dump, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” said Sheldon Johnson, executive of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, which coordinates recycling efforts in a number of northwest Wisconsin counties, including Douglas.

Contamination drives up operating costs and lowers the value of the end product, according to Waste Management spokeswoman Julie Ketchum. That can be passed on to consumers, both through rising costs and straight fees.

Johnson said four contaminated recycling containers were pulled from Washburn County transfer stations recently. Recycling contractor Republic Services charged an extra $86 each to dump the loads in a landfill.

What causes these dump detours?

“Food, surprisingly, is a high contaminant,” Ketchum said. But it’s not the only problem.

“We see diapers; we see tanglers (ropes, electric cord and other items that can wrap around equipment)," she said.

The business is focused on eliminating plastic bags and batteries from the recycling stream.

“We want people to loose-load their recyclables,” Ketchum said. “If they’re bagging recyclables, they need to dump the bags out directly into the cart.”

Those plastic bags can be reused, returned to stores that accept them or disposed of in the trash. They are no longer recyclable, and they can wrap around equipment.

“Workers have to crawl up and cut them away,” Ketchum said. “That takes 20 minutes a day, three times a day.”

A sign in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
A sign in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Batteries of all types should be brought to a hazardous waste site, she said. They can cause chemical fires and destroy recycling or trash trucks.

“People really want to recycle — they do,” Ketchum said. “They’re recycling more than ever.”

But they need to know what to throw and what to recycle. Johnson said the recycling stream got more streamlined two years ago when China declined to take food-contaminated items and plastic film from the U.S. Even if the film or hard plastic shell around a product has a recycling number on it, it can no longer be recycled.

There is currently an oversupply of recycled products, but 17 new markets for paper products are expected to open soon. That should improve future market conditions, Ketchum said.

For information on how to prepare recyclables and where to bring items that aren't accepted in recycling or trash containers, such as ammunition, mattresses and tires, visit douglascountywi.org/369/recycling or call recycling coordinator Jennifer Barton at 715-635-2197 ext. 244.