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Environment

UB researchers say public needs to be better educated on what can — and can’t — be recycled

City of Buffalo green recycling totes
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WBFO News

A lot of material which could be reused actually can't be because it's contaminated in some way. University at Buffalo researchers say educating the public on recycling is needed.

UB researchers, in a recent study, worked with two local supermarkets to examine their plastic bag recycling boxes. A professor and two grad students went through the boxes and found much of the material in the boxes was unusable because of contamination.

Engineering sustainability professor John Atkinson said there are immediate lessons in what they found.

“One of the outcomes from this study is that we need to very, very clearly educate people on what can and cannot go into those retail return bins,” he said. “And we also need to be very, very clear about the fact that they are a recycling bin. They are not a trash can.”

Researchers specifically looked at the impact of New York state’s ban on plastic bags, which lawmakers passed in 2019. They found contamination rates of the return bins increased 1.4 to 2.8 times since the ban took effect.

“Most people, including myself actually before diving into this topic in much more detail, think that only plastic bags can go into those bins. That's not true. There's a lot more things, case wrap, overwraps, lots and lots of plastics,” he said.

Atkinson said if the amount of material available for recycling decreases and becomes more contaminated, it may no longer be economical to recycle remaining plastics. That’s why the public needs to be educated on not only what can be recycled, but also how to do it.

Atkinson said there is a great need for better recycling because the more plastics are reused, the less need there is for crude oil and natural gas to be used to make new plastics. He said there is mass recycling of aluminum cans, beer bottles and plastic bottles, showing it can be done, either for the deposit or to turn the aluminum cans back into raw aluminum for reuse.