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Recycling is in jeopardy, but each of us can take action to make a difference.

Most people are aware that recycling conserves energy, reduces pollution and greenhouse gases, and conserves natural resources. Aside from the environmental benefits, few may know that recycling has an economic impact of over $3 billion in Indiana. A study released by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in 2017 shows over 17,000 jobs were directly supported by recycling and scrap brokerage operations in Indiana. Total wages paid for these jobs were $972 million, with taxes paid of $425 million.

These benefits were threatened last year when China stopped accepting recyclable materials from other countries. Roughly 33 percent of U.S. recyclables were shipped to China in 2017, much of which was contaminated.

Contamination is actual trash in the recycling bin, usually caused by “wish-cycling,” the practice of tossing questionable items in the recycling bin hoping they can somehow be recycled. Our single-stream recycling programs, where all materials are placed in one bin, have emboldened residents to place anything they think should be recycled in the bin and allow the sorting facilities to make that ultimate decision. This has led to high contamination rates and increased processing costs, causing China to stop importing recyclables.

These changing international markets forced regional material recovery facilities or MRFs (those who receive and market our recyclables) to search for solutions to maintain local recycling programs. MRFs now require lower levels of contamination in recyclables received and are passing the cost of processing contamination back to the users. Therefore, curbside and drop-off recycling programs will be less tolerant of contamination and service rates will increase to cover processing costs.

For example, this year the cost of drop-off recycling service sponsored by the Porter County Recycling and Waste Reduction District will increase along with efforts to reduce contamination. Containers at six district sponsored drop-off recycling sites will be labeled with descriptions of what is recyclable along with locked lids with restricted openings. The labels will clearly state what is accepted; plastic bottles, tubs and jugs; aluminum and metal cans; glass bottles and jars; cartons; and various paper items. If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t go in the container. Restricted openings will discourage abusive behavior, such as putting actual trash in the containers.

Recycling doesn’t start at the sorting facility; recycling starts with each and every one of us. Here’s what you can do:

First, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Pay attention to what is truly accepted through local recycle programs and properly dispose of items that cannot be recycled. Keeping contamination down will help recycling programs survive. Recycling guidelines for what is accepted at district drop-off sites can be found on the district website www.portercountyrecycling.org. These recycling guidelines apply to most recycling programs in the Region.

Second, think “quality over quantity.” Think about recyclables as products that a company will buy. If materials are not appropriate, empty or clean, no one wants them. Contamination in recycling programs is a disservice to everyone who is recycling right.

And third, don’t “wish-cycle,” but educate yourself about how items are recycled in your area. Just because an item can’t go in the traditional recycle container doesn’t always mean it can’t be recycled through a different program. The district website is a good resource for information on where items can be recycled other than in your recycling container.

The citizens of NWI can make a difference in the environment and in the lives of fellow Hoosiers. Thank you for stepping up your recycling efforts!

Therese Haller is the executive director of the Porter County Recycling and Waste Reduction District. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.