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."

 

3 Rules To Recycle By

  • ALWAYS recycle cans, bottles, jars, jugs, and clean newspaper, office paper, and cardboard.
  • NEVER recycle food, liquids, plastic cups, plastic dishware, pizza boxes, plastic bags, aluminum foil, plastic or metal utensils, Styrofoam, drinking glasses, cups, dishware, plastic wraps and wrappers.
  • WHEN IN DOUBT, If after studying your municipality's waste codes, you're still unsure of whether an item can be recycled or not, chuck it. Otherwise you risk contaminating legit recycling materials, which means the whole batch gets tossed in a landfill.

Download an 8.5" x 11" printable PDF of 3 Rules for Recycling.

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.

 

Plastic By The Numbers

#1. PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)
Found in many common household items, including beverage bottles, peanut butter jars, mouthwash bottles
Recyclability: Widely Accepted
Becomes fiberfill for sleeping bags, carpet fibers, tote bags

#2. HDPE (High density polyethylene)
Found in milk jugs, butter tubs, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, food containers
Recyclability: Widely Accepted
Becomes trashcans, flowerpots, traffic cones

#3. V (Polyvinyl chloride)
Found in plumbing tubing, fences, siding
Recyclability: Limited
Becomes irrigation and drainage pipes

#4. LDPE (Low density polyethylene)
Found in squeezable bottles, grocery bags, shrink wrap, bread bags
Recyclability: Not commonly recycled, but accepted at certain stores and drop-off locations
Becomes new grocery bags

#5. PP (Polypropylene)
Found in yogurt containers, Tupperware, prescription bottles, bottle caps, straws, plastic diapers
Recyclability: Often not accepted by recycling centers. Look for take-back programs such as Gimme 5
Becomes toothbrushes and razors

#6. PS (Polystyrene) Commonly known as Styrofoam
Found in single-use plates and cups, carryout containers, egg crates, packaging peanuts, meat trays
Recyclability: Only at some drop-off sites
Becomes insulation, license plate frames, rulers

#7. Other (mixed plastic types)
A catchall for resins that don't fit the 1-6 criteria, including bioplastics made from corn, potato, and sugar derivatives. Found in baby bottles, three- and five-gallon water bottles, compact discs, sunglasses
Recyclability: Difficult. Usually not recycled by municipalities. Look for take-back programs in your area.

Download an 8.5" x 11" printable PDF of a Plastic By The Numbers chart.

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."

More Things That Really Can't Be Recycled

  • Take-out food containers: Unfortunately these have to be trashed. Most are not recyclable. Ditto for plastic forks, spoons, and knives. Bring your own containers for doggy bags next time you eat out, and when you eat on the road, bring a fork.
  • Glue strips and inserts in magazines: These can clog recycling equipment. Remove them from magazines and put them in the garbage.
  • Envelopes: Do not recycle yellow envelopes or padded envelopes with bubble wrap.
  • Packing materials: There's no recycling for Styrofoam peanuts—avoid them, if you can—but some places will reuse them. Find locations at earth911.com.

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."

 

Recycling Room-By-Room

1. GARAGE

Paint
Go to earth911.org to see if a paint-recycling program exists in your area. Sometimes you can donate remnant paint to school art and theater programs.

Cars, RVs, Motorcycles, Boats
These vehicles have metals and other materials that junkyards recycle for a profit. Check with local facilities, or junkmycar.com, which offers free pick up.

Recreational equipment
Don't send these to Goodwill, where they're likely to be trashed. The local recycling center probably won't take them either. Put on Craig's List, or trade in at Play it Again Sports. Or you can donate to sportsgift.org, which sends equipment to kids in need. The company skichair.com accepts old skis and turns them into Adirondack-style chairs.

2. KITCHEN

Appliances
Municipal waste departments often provide free collection of appliances. Utilities and retailers sometimes have trade-in programs. The EPA's RAD program offers a searchable database to locate RAD partners that pick up in your area, and sometimes offer financial incentives.

Kitchen Cabinets
You can donate these to a Habitat for Humanity ReStores. The nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers sell new and gently used furniture, appliances, home accessories, and building materials.

Plastic shopping bags
Certain grocery stores collect bags to be recycled into plastic lumber. For stores: plasticfilmrecycling.org

Six-pack rings
Schools participating in Ring Leader Recycling Program have kids collect these so they can be recycled into other plastic items, including shipping pallets.

3. LIVING ROOM

Compact fluorescent light bulbs
CFLs shouldn't go in the trash because they contain mercury. Recycle CFLs at stores like Ikea, Home Depot, local recycling centers and hardware stores.

Rugs (cotton or wool)
If they are clean and in good shape, donate to a charity like Goodwill. Or take to your town's local recycling center, if it accepts them.

Smoke detectors
Some towns will accept these, or send them to First Alert.

4. BEDROOM

Hangers
If your recycling center doesn't accept plastic hangers (and most don't) donate them to a thrift store. Dry cleaners and laundromats will sometimes reuse old wire hangers. Otherwise the metal (without the cardboard or paper covers) can usually be recycled at the curb or a collection center.

Box Spring and Mattresses
Depends on what they're made of and your local recycling program. Go to earth911.com to find out if your city accepts them.

Sneakers
If they're still in good shape, donate them to a thrift store or oneworldrunning.com, which sends sneakers to needy athletes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Nike's Reuse-a-Shoe program accepts all brands of old sneakers, in whatever shape, in stores and other drop-off locations, which are listed on the website.

Clothes
Donate garments that are unstained and in good shape to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other charities. Look for local clothing swap events. DoSomething.org and partner retailer H&M run an annual "Comeback Clothes Campaign" that collects old garments in exchange for 20% off store coupons. If you have Patagonia garments or jackets that are beyond repair, the company collects them to recycle into something new.

5. KIDS PLAYROOM

Crayons
Ship them to the National Crayon Recycle Program or Crazy Crayons, both of which melt them to make new ones. Leave the wrappers. It helps the organizations properly sort similar colors, like black, blue, and purple.

Glue
Check with your school for recycling programs, especially for Elmer's Glue. Some schools rinse out the bottles and send them to Wal-mart. Visit Elmer's Glue Crew Recycling Program.

Juice bags
Send Capri Sun, Kool-Aid Drink, and Honest Kids juice pouches to TerraCycle, which donates 2 cents to the charity of your choice. Shipping is provided. The company turns the pouches into totes, purses, and pencil cases sold at Walgreens and Target.

6. OFFICE

Cell phones
Check with manufacturers. Hopeline project provides old phones to domestic-violence survivors. Visit gowirelessgogreen.org for more charities.

Computers
Check with manufacturers. Many have recycling programs. Nextsteprecycling.org fixes broken machines and distributes them to nonprofits, schools, and families. Other charities like cristina.org and sharetechnology.org also accept computers.

DVDs, CDs, and jewel cases
Recycle at greendisk.com, which takes all sorts of "technotrash."

Envelopes
If it has a plastic window, recycle it with the paper. Ditto for FedEx and Jiffy envelopes, even if they have non-plastic padding.

Printer—ink cartridges
Many stores will recycle these for you. Best Buy offers recycling bins at store entrances. Staples will give you $2 off your next cartridge purchase.

7. BATHROOM

Eyeglasses
Only metal frames can be recycled. Donate frames, including plastic and even broken ones, to new-eyes.org. Certain retailers, including Target Optical and LensCrafters, will send them to onesight.org.

Hearing aides
Any make or model, old or new, can be recycled through Starkey Hearing Foundation.

Prescription drugs and containers
Medications are not recyclable, and should not be flushed down the toilet. Some municipalities hold drug take back days. Dispose My Meds is an online resource searchable by zip code. Plastic pill bottles are typically made of hard to recycle Polypropylene (PP, number 5). Gimme 5 collects number 5 plastic through certain retailers and by mail.

Makeup
Some retailers offer recycling programs. For example six or more empty MAC brand containers can be traded for a free lipstick. Certain products come in reusable and recyclable packaging.

Toothbrushes
The handles of bamboo or wood toothbrushes can be composted. Some plastic toothbrush companies provide replaceable heads. For every six plastic toothbrushes that you send to Preserve you will receive a $6 coupon to use at its online store.

Download an 8.5" x 11" printable PDF of a Recycling Room-by-Room chart.

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