LINCOLN SQUARE — Paper, plastic containers and aluminum cans are the holy trinity of recyclables, but plenty of Chicagoans loosely interpret those categories when it comes to dumping items in their blue carts.
"We've seen furniture, engine blocks, car bumpers," said Hector Fonseca, plant manager of the Far South Side Recycling Center of Waste Management, one of the contractors handling the city's recyclables.
Add to that list VHS tapes, pool liners, garden hoses and steam irons.
Some days, the amount of "contamination" — the industry term for trash mixed with recyclables — can reach 30 percent, Fonseca said.
During a recent visit to the center, DNAinfo witnessed a number of the wackier items Chicagoans have attempted to recycle, pulled fresh from that morning's conveyor belt.
There were bowling and soccer balls, children's shoes, a toy light saber, bricks, tires, strands of Christmas lights, wooden boards, window blinds and plastic bags. So many plastic bags.
Propane tanks, both large and small, were also among the day's contaminants. Not only are they not recyclable, they're flammable and pose a fire hazard if they somehow escape sorting and make it to the stage of the recycling process where items are compressed into bales.
Needles have become one of the biggest problems for the recycling center, mostly because of the rise in home health care services, according to Lisa Disbrow, director of public affairs for Waste Management.
People are following instructions to dispose of needles in plastic containers, but then they're placing those containers in the recycling bin, Disbrow said.
"It's a safety hazard for our employees," she said, and the presence of needles in, say, a bale of paper, will render that bale worthless.
The road to contamination is paved with good intentions, Disbrow said, with residents often being led astray by the presence of recycling symbols on objects that are anything but — at least when it comes to Chicago's municipal recycling program.
Take propane tanks: Yes, they're recyclable, at facilities specifically equipped to accept them, but not Chicago's blue carts.
"The messaging has gotten confusing," she said.
Aluminum cans doesn't mean "all metals." Plastic containers doesn't mean "all plastics."
"Get back to basics," Disbrow advised.
"We want the paper, the cardboard, the plastic containers and tubs," she said. "If we stay within that, that would be best."
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