Bagged or contaminated recyclables run risk of ending up in landfills, Johnson County warns

Putting recyclables in plastic bags could mean the whole lot ends up in the landfill instead of getting reused. Photo courtesy Johnson County Recycles.

An average of 24.6 percent of items Johnson County residents place in their recycling bins are either bagged in or comprised of non-recyclable materials.

That’s according to a 1,000-home recycling-habit survey Johnson County completed after China — where a large portion of the county’s recyclables are exported — tightened restrictions on accepted materials.

Earlier this month, Johnson County Recycles launched their seven-week Ditch the Bag campaign aimed to educate residents on how to properly recycle.

Through a collaboration of 12 Johnson County cities, the campaign is hoping to teach the importance of “freeing your recycling” and keeping items loose in recycling bins. The 1,000-home survey found 11 percent of residents put their recyclables in plastic bags.

Ditch the Bag stresses that viable recyclables mixed in with plastic film-containing products, like a plastic grocery bag, could end up in a landfill.

Not only does the contaminated plastic lower the value of the other recyclables, but it can also get caught in recycling facility machinery.

“People sometimes have a mindset of ‘wishful recycling’,” said Brandon Hearn head of Johnson County Recycles. “That’s where you’re not sure if something can be recycled or not, but you hope it will work out.”

For years, China accepted items exported from Johnson County recycling centers that included up to 1.5 percent contaminants — or non-recyclable materials. The restrictions implemented in late 2017, however, lowered the accepted percentage to .5 percent.
As a reaction to the new regulations, local recycling centers no longer accept recyclables bagged in plastic and may toss out recyclables containing plastic film.

Although residents shouldn’t put plastic film in their curbside recycling bins, those items can be recycled at several area grocery stores, like HyVee, Walmart and Target.

“We hope people make these little changes to help improve and in some ways, save our recycling process,” said Hearn.

Hearn explained continuation of sending contaminated recyclables could cause a financial strain on recycling companies, and risk ending or limiting recycling programs, which see 83 percent participation among Johnson County residents.

Common items not accepted at Johnson County recycling centers are:

  • Degradable/compostable bags or film packaging
  • Pre-washed salad mix bags
  • Frozen food bags
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Chip bags
  • Six-pack rings
  • Commonly accepted items are:
  • Retail, carryout, produce, newspaper, bread, and dry-cleaning bags (clean & dry)
  • Zip-top food storage bags (clean & dry)
  • Plastic shipping envelopes (remove labels), air pillows (deflate)
  • Product wrap on cases or water bottles, paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, etc.
  • Furniture and electronic wrap
  • Plastic cereal box liners (but not if it tears like paper, clean & dry)

For a complete list, visit