Officials: Contamination has turned recycling from a revenue to an expense in Fairfield

FAIRFIELD — Mounting confusion over what can be recycled has driven up associated costs on what used to be a revenue source for the town.

Acting Manager of the Department of Public Works, John Marsilio, says this confusion has been an issue since the 1990s, but has grown as the list of what can be recycled expands.

“There’s always been what we call contamination,” Marsilio said.

“It’s not just Fairfield,” he added. “We belong to a organization that has 10 or 11 towns and cities in it and we all have the same issues, that there are items people place in the recycle bin that aren’t recyclable.”

Marsilio estimates 20 to 25 percent of the items put in recycling bins or brought to the transfer station to be recycled isn’t actually recyclable.

“That adds to the cost,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

Marsilio says that early on when recycling was more limited with just newspaper, cardboard, bottles and cans, it was a revenue generator for all of the towns. At $15 to $35 a ton in revenue, a town like Fairfield brought in more than $100,000 a year.

Leave these items out of your recycling bin

Though the list of items that can be recycled has grown, these items still can't go into single stream:

Plastic bags

Hard cover books

Food waste

Paper plates



Motor oil or hazardous waste containers


CD cases

Sporting goods

Once the amount of recyclables was expanded and more confusion set in on what could be recycled, the amount of contaminated items that now had to be taken to disposed of also increased. It costs between $55 and $115 a ton, depending on the market value, to dispose of the contaminated items would get back for the recyclables.

“Instead of a revenue it has become an expense,” Marsilio said.

“Some of the items on the good to recycle list don’t have any revenue value like any of the glass, but they are recycled,” he added. “The items on the other side are not able to be recycled and they are just a burden on the expense side.”

During the 1990s, recycling was separated by category. Later during the mid-2000s, recycling was changed from curbside, separated bin arrangement to a larger, single tote policy referred to as single-stream recycling, a process Fairfield participates in.

Over the years, the state of Connecticut has also expanded their list of desired items that can be recycled.

“As you can see, there is a big opportunity for people to get confused,” Marsilio said referring to a list of accepted and non-accepted items. “Under metals, you have aerosol containers food grade only, but on the other side you have aerosol containers for deodorizers, cleaners, pesticides so many many people get confused over that.”

Included with food grade aerosol containers that are recyclable metals are aluminum foil, cans, bottles, foil containers and metals lids from cans and bottles.

Acceptable recyclable items for paper include cardboard, box board, food and beverage cartons, junk mail, magazine and newspaper inserts, newsprint, office paper and pizza boxes. Beverage bottles, food bottles and jars are accepted items for glass.

Plastic bottles, plastic containers and plaster one-use cups are also recyclable.

“We take the recyclables and haul them to a reclamation plant in Shelton and they separate everything there,” Marsilio said. “What can be recycable is separated and those that can’t get recycled get loaded and placed on a truck and taken to the burn plan in Bridgeport.”

Mark O’Brien, executive director of sales and marketing at the Oak Ridge recycling plant in Shelton, echoes Marsilio’s comments on residents’ recycling confusion.

“People do get confused on what should go in the recycling bin and what should be thrown away,” O’Brien said. “It’s an ongoing battle I could say.”

Officials are hoping to spread the word though to reduce the contamination.

“It goes back to education and that sort of thing,” O’Brien added. “We have things on our website and many of the municipalities have stuff on their website. You know, we’re looking at things we can do to try and help educate.”