Reasons Our Recycling System Is Broken And Crappy
It's 2020, and we've officially been making fun of the US recycling system for over a decade. And somehow, despite our best attempts at ridicule, it really hasn't gotten any better. Unsurprisingly, when you combine an overall lack of understanding with the basic concept of recycling itself with a broken system that's baffling on the best of days, this is what you get:
People Have No Clue How the Recycling System Works
Without question, the primary problem with the US recycling program is that the average American has no clue how it works. We'll toss a plastic bottle in a recycling bin willingly enough, but really, how much time do we spend thinking about where that bottle ultimately ends up? Probably not a whole bunch. We seem to think there's some nebulous government agency that sorts through our recycled crap and magically transforms it into whatever brand new, environmentally-friendly products we need. Like that plastic bottle you recycled last week is your plastic grocery bag today. Yeah, no.
The most important thing to understand is that recycling is a business, and you're providing inventory every time you toss something in a bin instead of a garbage can. Municipal recycling programs aren't sitting on a massive cache of recycled materials just hoping an altruistic company will come along and use them, nor do local systems have a fraction of the infrastructure needed to process all the different types of recyclables themselves.
The truth is, before any of our recycled trash can be made into something new, state or local waste management companies have to find buyers willing to literally purchase our trash and turn it back into raw material. In short, our recycled waste becomes a commodity that is bought, sold, and traded in a complex global market before it's eventually reconstituted as a new product.
We Constantly Contaminate and Recycle the Wrong Stuff
Okay, okay. Recycling's a business. So what? Well, just like any other business, recycling systems must supply a sellable product in order to be successful. That means that if we want companies to come buy our stupid trash so it can be reused, we have to provide recycled items that are 1) actually recyclable and 2) not contaminated. See, people are actually super confused about it. A 2019 survey showed that 62 percent of Americans worry that they recycle incorrectly due to a lack of understanding about how the system works. Some 52 percent of those respondents erroneously believed that greasy pizza boxes could be recycled, and a whopping 68 percent thought that used plastic utensils belong in a recycle bin. That's, umm, not the case.
According to Dr. Paul Gilman, Chief Sustainability Officer at the industrial waste company Covanta, "Many Americans are practicing aspirational recycling - tossing things into recycling bins that they think should be recycled, rather than what can be recycled." This "wishcycling" has resulted in "contamination of recyclables and a crisis in the market."
In the United States, the average contamination rate is an abysmal 25 percent, which means that one out of every four items tossed in a recycling bin actually belongs in the trash. Food or other debris left on paper or cardboard messes up the refining process and prevents the pulp from being used; in the same way, non-recyclable plastics (or just types of plastic your area's program doesn't take) tossed in with the recyclable type can ruin an entire batch of potentially-reusable material. Look, we're not trying to diss you for wanting to save that aluminum can that's still half filled with diced tomatoes. Just get the tomatoes out of it and then we can talk.
Navigating The System Is Confusing
So, if consumers are bewildered about how recycling works, and we're all doing a fairly crappy job of determining what can be recycled...whose fault is that, exactly? To be perfectly fair to the average American, figuring out what is and isn't recyclable is an almost Herculean task.
Take disposable cups, for example. It might look like it's made of paper and feel like it's made of paper, so you'd think it's probably recyclable. In actuality, almost all "paper" cups are lined with polyethylene to make them waterproof, which is code for "probably not recyclable" (unless your reclamation facility has a special machine). Unless consumers take it upon themselves to investigate the recyclability of every paper cup they use, there's no way to know which ones are recyclable and which ones are stupid, dumb liars. And that's just ridiculous.
The situation with plastic is even worse. Many people assume - understandably - that if there's a triangle with a number inside it, that piece of plastic belongs in a recycling bin. In reality, those plastic resin codes are an indicator (for sorting facilities - not consumers) of what type of plastic it is, not whether it's actually recyclable. While #1 and #2 plastics are usually able to be recycled, one study estimates that less than 5% of the remaining resins - types 3 through 7 - are ever successfully reprocessed into new products. Despite that fact, one survey showed that a staggering 92 percent of Americans are either unsure or believe any plastic with a resin code can be recycled curbside. No wonder we have a 25% contamination rate.
The problem is compounded by the fact that virtually every municipality has differing and frequently changing rules about what can and can't be recycled. There's no consistency from one city or county to the next, to say nothing of a nationwide standard. Worst of all, the sole burden of deciphering whether or not an item can be recycled falls squarely on the shoulders of the consumer. It's up to individuals to research and determine what can be recycled both on an item level (ie: Is that coffee cup lined or not?) and on a local level (ie: Can it go in a curbside bin, or does it have to go to a collection site?).
Realistically, that responsibility should rest with the companies, which should be transparent and eager to educate customers, and with local governments, which should bend over backwards to establish clear and consistent guidelines for residents who want to recycle. But it isn't. And so we're just left playing Russian Roulette with a Pepsi bottle.
Trying to Earn Money Trumps Doing the Right Thing for the Environment
So if the recycling system is so utterly broken, why aren't we trying to fix it for the good of the environment? Aren't we supposed to reduce, reuse, and recycle because it's the "right" thing to do? The problem is, recycling is really, really expensive, and a growing number of cities are finding their recycling programs impossible to maintain. Even on a good day, most programs operate at a loss, and cities can't hope to sell recycled materials for nearly enough to cover collection and sorting costs. Local governments then face the decision to either raise taxes or cut funding to other programs in order to keep the recycling systems up and running.
And very often, companies who commit to using recycled materials also take a financial hit. Lower oil prices have made new or "virgin" plastic cheaper than recycled, so doing right by Mother Nature comes with a higher price tag. Consumers impact the cost via improper recycling and contamination, which make it harder to find buyers for recycled materials, while simultaneously increasing the cost to municipalities. The fact is, it's just cheaper and easier to burn our trash or dump it in a landfill or feed it to waste monster that will one day fight Godzilla, and local governments aren't always super up-front about what they do with what we throw away.
Half of the trash recycled by Philadelphia residents goes straight to an incinerator, where it's converted to energy. The Memphis Airport might have recycling bins out and about, but anything put in them goes straight to the dump. A 2019 study found that every single state has, in some way, been forced to cut back on recycling programs due to the economic impracticality of the current system.
It's Suffering From Unfavorable Trade Laws
Wow, that's depressing. Why haven't we done anything to fix the steaming pile that is our recycling system? Well, until 2018, not a whole lot of this mattered. Historically, the United States sold most of its recycled scrap to China, since they have the factories and other facilities needed to process it into new products. It was a symbiotic, if not entirely equitable, relationship that existed for decades. But when trade laws changed and the process became exponentially more expensive, China decided they'd had enough of our crap. Literally.
New restrictions put in place by the Chinese government said the maximum contamination rate on imported recyclables was .3 percent, a virtually unattainable number for a country whose current contamination rate is, again, a cool 25 percent. And China knows that. According to National Waste and Recycling Association director Steve Changaris, "They are kicking us out and trying to use their own wastes so they can develop their own domestic recycling capacity." In other words, they want to process and reuse their own country's trash. What a novel idea, really.
We should probably look into that, too. As it stands, our recycled goods are piling up as we look for a country willing to take them. In many cities, waste will very soon "have no place to go" unless significant, sweeping changes are made to our recycling system and funding is provided for local infrastructure. In the meantime, we can help by making damn sure anything that we put in a recycling bin really, truly belongs there, because given the current state of the system, it's infinitely better to be safe than sorry.