The Recycling Problem: What’s Wrong and How Do We Fix It?
At some point, you’ve probably dropped a water bottle into the blue bin marked with that snappy triangle and walked off feeling a tinge satisfied that you’ve done something to help the planet. Maybe you’ve never given a second thought as to where it goes, accepting the whole recycling system as a black box that produces those bottles proudly labeled “50% post-consumer recycled content!” I don’t blame you. Who wants to talk about trash anyway?
I do. And you’re at least a teensy bit interested too, or you wouldn’t have clicked on this article.
Maybe you’ve heard the news: recycling isn’t working. From California to New York, the United States’ recycling system is one big mess.
But What Exactly Is the Recycling System Anyway?
Recycling has 5 basic parts: consumer disposal, transport, sorting & baling, breakdown & production of new materials, materials made into consumer products.
In a perfect closed-loop world it looks like this:
But right now, it’s looking a lot more like this:
Clearly, we have some serious problems: contaminated waste streams and abominable infrastructure.
But where exactly is recycling going wrong? Unfortunately, it starts with us. (Yeah, we can go on for days about how it’s the companies’ fault. And that may be true, but they’re not changing anytime soon and we’re not doing our part well either). Alright, here we go.
4 Ways the Consumer Is Getting Recycling Wrong:
1. We’re Not Sorting Properly
If you have zero-sort in your city, this isn’t as big of an issue. Everything on your city’s list of acceptable recyclables goes in the same bin. But hold up, you’re not off the hook yet. If your city doesn’t have zero-sort, you must separate your recyclables into separate bins according to your city’s guidelines.
2. We’re Not Cleaning
Sorry, but you can’t throw that dish with the caked-on microwave meal into the bin because the dish says ‘7’ on the back. I know, it seems ridiculous that we have to wash our trash, but food is a contaminant. It does not belong in the recycling bin. This is especially important in zero-sort systems because paper and cardboard contaminated by food become unrecyclable.
We’ve all done it. Realized that piece of plastic you thought was recyclable has no number and chucked it into the recycling bin hoping it will somehow work out. It doesn’t. This behavior, known as wish-cycling, throws tons of non-recyclable material into the stream. Best case scenario the trash has to be sorted and discarded anyway. Worst case, it results in even more material being thrown out.
As an avid environmentalist, I get this one, I really do. I hate throwing things away. It feels better somehow to drop it in the recycling even though you know you shouldn’t. Don’t. You’re going to do more good by putting trash where it belongs.
4. Specialty Recycling
Like improper sorting, this has to do with items that can be recycled, but it’s not being done correctly. But unlike the sorting issue above, these items don’t belong in your recycling bins at all. I’m talking about batteries, plastic bags, and depending on your city, styrofoam, and others.
Most recycling facilities aren’t designed to handle these items, and they can cause some serious issues. Batteries leak some pretty nasty chemicals if they’re punctured, and plastic bags are the bane of moving parts.
I know it sucks but you’ve got to keep these items separate and bring them to places designed to take them. Many grocery stores have plastic bag (#4) recycling, and many cities have some form of a battery recycling program.
To sum it up, we as consumers are responsible for contaminated waste streams.
I hate to be the one to break it to you but the recycling facility that sorts your stuff isn’t some mysterious land where anything and everything can be sorted out. (I kind of wish it was, though). It is a facility designed specifically to sort certain materials: metal, glass (usually), paper, and some plastics. Anything else going in there is causing problems.
Alright, Enough About Us. Ready to Trash the System Now? Yeah, You Are.
Next up is the part you’ve probably heard about: the recycling facilities that we’ve been depending on for decades have shut us out.
The USA had been sending its recycling to China for processing since 1992, but in 2018, China stopped accepting our crap. Fair enough, given China has plenty of their own trash to worry about, being home to the most contaminated river in the world.
All of a sudden we had nowhere to put our sorted recyclables. The US has very limited domestic facilities for the actual breakdown and production of new materials, so all that perfectly good material started being sent to the landfill.
Plastic only gets a few lives. A limited number of times it can be recycled until the material can no longer be used again. This is known as downcycling, as each subsequent plastic product is lower in quality. It’s the reason why most plastic we see on the shelves is made of <80% post-consumer waste.
Plastic is the worst offender here for a few reasons. Glass and metal can be recycled pretty much infinitely (over ⅔ of all aluminum ever produced in US consumer products is recycled). Like plastic, paper has a limited lifespan. But unlike plastic, paper is renewable and biodegrades when it can no longer be used.
Plastic is the only material with limited lives, that doesn’t break down, and is considered a pollutant in every environment.
The other problem with plastic recycling is that it’s not economically favorable. It is often more expensive to recycle plastics than it is to produce new plastic, something fossil fuel companies are fighting hard to maintain.
What Can We Do?
In the long term, we need a complete industry overhaul in which developing a circular economy (see diagram 1) is prioritized. Until then, we’re stuck with patching up the problem.
As consumers, we can start by minimizing our waste: refusing single-use plastics, reducing what we buy, reusing what we can, and then and only then recycling the rest.
When we recycle, we have to do it properly. It may seem like a lot of work, but it will become a habit over time, I promise. If you’re overwhelmed, check out your city’s guidelines on recycling, or if you know what company takes your recycling you can check them out online too.
The most important step we need to take is building better infrastructure. No matter how much we try to reduce our consumption, humans will always produce some waste, and it’s absurd to think we’ll ever be able to eliminate it. So we need better infrastructure for recycling. Better, more robust facilities, new and more efficient means of repurposing materials. Recycling must become economically favorable.
We’re already making strides. Researchers are trying to figure out a way to make an infinitely recyclable plastic. Companies like TerraCycle are taking materials that we never would have dreamed of recycling, like gum, cigarettes, and snack bags, and turning them into useful products. And many non-profits, like zoos and aquariums, are setting up ways we can recycle electronic waste.
Recycling isn’t the solution to our trash problem, but it does have an important role to play in a green economy, and we can all do our part to make sure it gets there.