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When the prices for recycled commodities decline, there is a renewed call for quality and contamination-free recycling. With the merger of recycling and sustainability, there are some new faces involved in recycling. And since some of those new faces don’t have as much experience in recycling collection and operations, I want to go back and talk about a facet of recycling collection that has been so successful that I sometimes take it for granted: restrictive lids.

Restrictive lids are one of if not the most effective way to reduce contamination in a recycling bin.

What are restrictive lids?

Restrictive lids restrict the type of material that can be placed into a bin. They are typically lids with a long slot cut into the top to signify that the bin is for paper or round hole cut into the top to signify that the bin is for bottles & cans. In programs in which paper and bottles & cans are combined into a single bin (what is typically marketed using names like “single-stream” or “all-in-one recycling”), the lids are frequently combined into an opening often called a Saturn lid. This is essentially a paper slot with a round hole superimposed into the middle of it.

Why do restrictive lids work?

For recycling to work, you have to segregate the materials that you want to recycle from those that you don’t.

If you didn’t have a restrictive lid you would typically rely on a label on the front of your bin to identify that stream. But for bin labels to work most effectively, you need a clear line of sight and adequate time to read the label. In my experience, that frequently does not happen in corridors or campus center concourses that are fairly crowded with pedestrian traffic. In these locations, the flow of pedestrian traffic brings you too close to the bin to see the front of it, and moves too quickly for you to stop to take the time to look down and fully read the label. If you can get far enough back to see the front of a bin, people walking by inhibit your view of the label. As a result, when folks utilize the trash and recycling bins, they are often standing next to a bin, looking down at the top.

If you have two open-top bins, and cannot see the label, you cannot tell what is supposed to go into the bin. The best you can do is guess based on what else is in the bin. As a result, the minute someone contaminates a recycling bin or discards recyclables into the trash, both bins look similar. The next user cannot determine what the bin is for based on the contents. Thus, the problem exacerbates quickly. Too often the result is recyclable materials ending up in the trash, either because your contaminated bin gets dumped as trash by your collection crew, or because all that contaminated material gets discarded further on down the line at the recycling processing facility or mill. With a restrictive lid, this problem is solved, or at least drastically reduced. If you look down at a restrictive paper slot, it is immediately obvious that an iced coffee cup doesn’t go into that bin even if you never see the label.

Restrictive lids also work like a basketball shot blocker. If you have 2-3 open-topped bins, I have found that in too many instances, some people take the trash or recyclable materials in their hand and toss it into the bins from a distance like some sort of Steph Curry/Michael Jordan/Larry Bird basketball jump shot (insert your favorite NBA jump shooter depending on how old you are) – or sometimes it’s an underhand toss at the bins like they are pitching bocce at a backyard BBQ. When that happens, if someone misses, their trash ends up in the recycling bin or recyclables end up in the trash bin. In my experience, when that occurs, virtually no one will walk over and reach into the bin to pick their item out of the incorrect bin and place it into the correct one (nor from a safety standpoint would you want them to). With a restrictive lid, it eliminates this long-range contamination.

Another often overlooked benefit of restrictive lids is their universal language translation. Whether they are guests at your park, students on your campus, or your collection crew, there may be locations in which there are a significant portion of your bin users for whom English (or whatever language your labels are in) is not their primary language. For those folks, counting on labels to work is impracticable. But with a restrictive lid the message is conveyed universally. It’s like the shape sorter game that many of us had as little kids in which we learned that we can’t push the square peg through the round hole. We didn’t have to read instructions for that message to be conveyed.

Are you finding your recycling markets are getting tougher and tougher about contamination? If so, I can’t strongly recommend enough that you go back and look to see if you have restrictive lids in your public area recycling containers.

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Roger Guzowski

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