The Truth About Recycling in America
After decades of growth, our recycling rate has stalled. Is single-stream recycling to blame?
Part I: The Real State of Recycling in America
This will come as no surprise: Americans make a lot of trash—258 million tons per year, to be precise, an amount equal to the weight of more than 700 Empire State Buildings. Up until 2010, the percentage of garbage diverted from landfills to be recycled or composted—plastic bottles, glass jars, grass clippings, paper, cardboard boxes, rubber tires—was improving steadily, but for the last six years the rate has stalled at around 34 percent, a drop-off in momentum that some say could pose a crisis for the future of recycling.
At various points in history, including the Great Depression and wartimes when raw materials for manufacturing were spare, recycling was an absolute necessity. But the ease and convenience of single-use products since the 1950s transformed the U.S. into a throwaway society and shifted the burden of recycling onto cities and consumers. Thankfully, with the proliferation of curbside programs since the 1970s, it has becoming easier than ever to recycle. And when done right it makes a big difference. "Recycling is the number one action we can do for the environment, the economy, manufacturing, and protecting oceans," says Mitch Hedlund, founder and executive director of Recycle Across America, a non-profit. "But the industry relies on the public to recycle properly in order for the process to work."
Today's recycling hurdles have to do with global economics, technological limitations, inconsistent legislation, and the need for better consumer awareness. One factor is the widespread shift toward single stream recycling—intended to make it easier for consumers to do the right thing (see 3 Rules For Recycling, below). Single stream has literally put some clogs in the system, because today's material recovery facilities weren't built to process certain types of garbage increasingly flowing into the plants. Plastic bags are one of the biggest culprits causing costly stops and shutdowns. Not only do they jam equipment, they also pose a dangerous hazard to workers who sometimes lose fingers trying to untangle them. Incorrectly recycled broken beverage glasses and certain mixed plastics can taint hauls too. As a result, the entire lot is likely to get chucked.
Single stream recycling, intended to make it easier for consumers to do the right thing, has literally put some clogs in the nation's recycling systems.
Economics are another issue. For recycling to be a profitable, the value of the goods must be higher than the cost to collect and process them, says Brent Bell, VP of recycling at Waste Management, the largest waste service provider in the country. Cheap oil prices have provided an incentive for manufacturers to buy more virgin plastic than recycled material. Commodity pricing for aluminum, copper, iron, and paper has likewise fallen. As a result, waste companies have reported record deficits in the millions and some material recovery facilities have gone out of business. On one day in early 2016 rePlanet, the largest operator of beverage container buyback locations in California, closed some 200 locations, citing the decline in the commodities values. Waste Management shuttered more than 20 percent of if its facilities (about 30 centers) since 2014. "We've had to come up with a different business model," says Bell. "Instead of giving [municipalities] rebates, we began charging material processing fees."
By contrast, some countries in Europe, where recycling rates are higher, require producers themselves to pay into the system to maintain the value of recyclable materials and guarantee the use of those materials in products.
Since there are no producer responsibility programs or national recycling laws in this country it's especially crucial that you familiarize yourself with your local programs. "Our infrastructure is very patchwork," says Darby Hoover, a recycling expert at the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council. "I live in Oakland and work in San Francisco, and you don't put the same things in the recycling bin in those two adjacent cities. So, it's really hard for there to be statewide regulations, much less country-wide."
The good news is a handful of states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—have passed laws requiring mandatory plastic bottle recycling. Some of those and others, a total of about ten, have implemented bottle bills by which the government pays 5 to 10 cents per can or bottle delivered to a recycling center. At the municipal level, cities like Seattle have "pay as you throw" policies that fine companies and citizens for tossing recyclables in the garbage.
"Recycling is something everybody can do, and it absolutely helps," says Hoover. "People just need to educate themselves about what can be accepted in recycling bins in their community and make sure they're doing it in the way their city asks them to." At the same time, "examine whether you need to have something in the first place," Hoover says. And if you should ever become disenchanted, she advises, consider what cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said—Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. "It's the cumulative power of a lot of individuals that will make a difference."
Part II: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Plastic?
From paperclips to space ships, plastic is everywhere. It's cheap and easy to manufacture, and because it's versatile, durable, and permeable to water, it can be molded into almost anything. But it's a disaster for the environment. Based on experiments that help scientists make long-term predictions, some sources say a single plastic bag can take as long as 500 years to decay. Americans use about 2,500,000 plastic bottles every hour—and most of them are thrown away. The total rate of plastic recycling in the U.S. is only 9.5 percent.
Virtually any plastic object that's ever been created still exists on the planet in some shape or form. Much of it is afloat at sea. A recent study by the World Economic Forum forecasts the volume of plastics in the ocean will likely outweigh all the fish, pound for pound, by 2050. In another study Australian researchers predict that 90 percent of seabirds in the world have ingested plastic. That contamination gets passed up the food chain to larger animals like whales and sharks, and us. Studies show human exposure to some chemicals found in plastic, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), may cause cancers, asthma, and endocrine disruption.
Virtually any plastic object that's ever been created still exists on the planet in some shape or form. Much of it is afloat at sea.
Fortunately, there are signs of progress. States like California and Hawaii have recently banned plastic bags from being handed out at stores, and environmental advocates predict that other states will soon follow. Cities around the country—including New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Dallas, Los Angeles—are taking steps toward sending zero waste to landfills in the matter of the next decade or two. And some consumer stores, including Staples, Best Buy, and Nike, are offering take-back programs to collect items like electronics and sneakers that can't be recycled on the municipal level (See the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and our room to room guide, at the end of this article).
When you're recycling, scrutinize plastic containers to make sure they are made from types of resins that your municipality will accept (see Know Your Numbers, below). In general, the higher the number inside the circulating arrows (1 to 7), the less likely the plastic can be processed. It's important to learn the rules in your area to avoid contaminating the recycling stream, and if an item can't be tossed in the bin, look for other ways to give it new life.
#1. PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)
#2. HDPE (High density polyethylene)
#3. V (Polyvinyl chloride)
#4. LDPE (Low density polyethylene)
#5. PP (Polypropylene)
#6. PS (Polystyrene) Commonly known as Styrofoam
#7. Other (mixed plastic types)
Part III: Tips For Zero-Waste Living From A Woman Who Can Fit A Year's Worth Of Trash Into One Mason Jar
Bea Johnson, author of the book Zero Waste Home, travels the world talking about how her family of four manages to produce only a quart-sized Mason jar worth of trash in an entire year. She says the key to her lifestyle is "not about recycling more; it's actually about recycling less—because of waste prevention in the first place."
It all started in 2006, when she and her husband decided to sell their house on a cul-de-sac outside of San Francisco and move closer to town. They wanted to raise their two boys, then 5 and 6 years old, in a place where they could walk and bike to stores and other amenities. As they searched for a house, they put the majority of their belongings in storage. When they finally got settled in their new home a year later, they realized they hadn't missed that stuff. "So we started letting go of things and adopted a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity," she says. "We got rid of about 80 percent of our belongings over time."
During the next two years, Johnson developed an environmental philosophy that she calls the "Five Rs: REFUSE what you do not need, REDUCE what you actually do need, REUSE by swapping anything that's disposable for reusable alternatives, and buy secondhand when you do need to buy something, RECYCLE only what you can't refuse, reduce, or reuse. And finally, ROT, which is compost."
In practicing the 5Rs, her family gave up material gifts like clothes, toys, and electronics. Instead they've focused on giving each other memorable experiences, including skydiving, snorkeling, and ice climbing trips.
Bea Johnson's family of four manages to produce only a quart-sized Mason jar worth of trash in an entire year.
They paired down their belongings to such a degree that each family member's wardrobe is now small enough to fit in a suitcase. Take a look inside Bea's closet and you'll find nine shirts, two dresses, five bottoms, three outerwear garments, and six pairs of shoes, all of which she mixes into dozens of different looks.
When food shopping, she travels with a kit made of reusable totes, cloth sacks, and glass jars to buy items in bulk. Sacks are filled with cereal and nuts, fruits and vegetables. Glass jars stand in for standard plastic wrapping and wax paper at the meat, fish, and cheese counters. "Everyone is always afraid to do this," she says. "There is no FDA code that stops you from bringing a clean container for whatever you want to put in it. The trick is to not look the staff in the eyes. When you order say 'Hi, can I please have one [jar] of meat?' Then look down and hand them the jar."
Johnson says she doesn't have to think much about bewildering recycling labels because the family recycles so little—even glass wine bottles get refilled at a local seller. They also compost like crazy. In her book she offers recommendations for different types of composters that can handle every food item, no matter if you live in a home or an apartment. She even includes a DIY composter that can handle Fido's output.
There is one particular ubiquitous item that is her nemesis: straws, which are not recyclable. At a restaurant she'll say, "cocktail, no straw." But the request often goes ignored because restaurants automatically put straws in drinks. "It's really frustrating," she says. "It's the hardest thing to stop, period."
She has figured out how to apply her 5Rs to just about every other common item she encounters. Only the materials that she can't eliminate with the 5Rs go in the jar, mainly little household remnants, including bits of calking and paint; plastic bristles from recyclable toothbrushes; a greeting card made from photo paper, sticker labels, and silica packets that were tucked inside a pair of second-hand slippers. (For tips on how to recycle everything in your house, see Recycling Room-by-Room, below.)
Johnson wants to shatter the misconception that practicing zero waste means you have to conform to a hippie lifestyle. "You can adapt it to your own style. It's not going to cost more—it actually saves money—and it doesn't take more time." It's easy to start with the first R, she says. "The next time someone hands something to you, think, 'Do you really need it?' Because every time we accept something that we do not need we're creating a demand for it, and once you bring it home it becomes your waste problem. The first step is to learn to say no."
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