As you may or may not be aware, in Portland, all recycling goes in one bin. This is great for getting people to recycle, but sucks for the people who ultimately have to sort through all of our crap. Yes, this is indeed an occupation: recycling sorter. It entails grabbing all the stuff that should not be recycled off a conveyor belt moving 18 mph, according to this article: http://blog.oregonlive.com/pdxgreen/2010/06/recycling_a_careful_curbside_s.htmlThe minimum wage pay (even for Oregon) is certainly not worth the work.
Earlier this semester, I spent a couple hours sorting out the recyclable materials found in various piles of trash gathered around Lewis and Clark. While some of the finds were quite interesting (used hamster shavings? Someone has a secret pet...), you can probably imagine that sorting through trash is not the most pleasant endeavor. Especially knowing that it takes no less time or energy for individuals to throw recyclables in the recycling bin and trash in the trash can. Everyone knows that throwing away recyclable things is a problem, but few people think about the other side of the issue: recycling things that should not be recycled. This causes more work for the sorters, and is ultimately more wasteful than just sending the item to the landfill. Not all that goes into our recycling bins actually gets recycled. It is hard to find actual data for this, but the sorting process is not perfect. Beyond recycling the wrong big things, many of the small papers and other little things we throw in our recycling bins may easily get lost in the sorting process and never get recycled. Think about a sticky-note. As the machines or people sort the recycling as it flies by, they are not likely to stop and sort out a little tiny piece of paper. It may even be stuck to a plastic bottle, which a machine might pass over as not fitting in any category, and trash them both.
There is so much to know about recycling that is not well known, and with a bit of education, the recycling process could be so much more efficient than it already is. Even we, the proud citizens of Juniper, do not really know the first thing about recycling. I think it is important, while we strive to be "waste-free" to remain conscientious about what is actually recyclable, and to avoid thinking or saying (as I have done more than once) "it's probably recyclable," as we toss an unidentifiable object into the recycling bin.
P.S.- If you have heard the rumor that one food-contaminated piece of recycling can contaminate an entire batch, this is generally false. The sorting process can usually take care of this (in Portland, at least), but it is still important to make sure that you are recycling the right items. Also, the little "recycle" stamp does not necessarily mean something is recyclable. So even if you think you know, there's a good chance you don't.