The Truth About Recycling
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
The famous "reduce, reuse, recycle!" has been engrained in us since we were young. Since then, when I threw things in the recycling bin, I was content- I thought that I was doing my part in saving the environment. Recycling is simple, right? Well, not quite.
Although recycling is often talked about as a major way for individuals to help the environment, few people really know where that recycling goes.
One thing that has stuck out to me in my sustainability classes is the question: when things get thrown away, where really is "away"?
I asked myself the same thing about our recycling and in my research, I found some pretty upsetting statistics.
First off, the Financial Times claims that "Globally, about half the plastic intended for recycling is traded overseas" (Financial Times, 2018).
According to Sunil Bagaria, who runs the recycling company GDB International, "The U.S. only recycles 10% [of their plastic waste]" (NPR, 2019). While most European countries are recycling 35-40% of their plastic waste, the U.S. has heavily relied on exporting our plastic scraps and waste overseas- to countries like China. As imports of plastic material flooded into countries like China and Thailand, workers had to deal with huge amounts of potentially hazardous materials (including electronic waste) that was mis-marked on customs. This electronic waste, if not disposed of properly, can cause a lot of harm, especially because it contains an array of heavy metals.
But... on December 31, 2017 China stopped accepting the imports of recycled materials from other countries. From that point on, the U.S. recycling system was thrown into crisis and in reality, had to be reexamined completely. According to the Financial Times, many companies in the U.S. had to send their recycled material straight to landfill, because there was simply "no where else to put it" (Financial Times, 2018). The decision from China will could ultimately be a positive one, as it will force countries like the U.S. to reconsider our recycling practices and capacity.
Since the ban on imports of plastic materials to China, U.S. companies have outlined their two choices: pay more to get rid of their recycling or throw it all away. So what are they choosing?
Unfortunately, many are choosing to throw it all away. This means that while people think that they are doing their part in helping the environment, their carefully-sorted bottles are ending up in the trash. In one example, the town of Fort Edward, NY suspended its recycling program in July of 2019, and admitted to "taking recycling to an incinerator for months" (The Atlantic, 2019).
The end to many recycling programs is coming at a very bad time. Why? Because the U.S. is creating more waste than ever before. Even more importantly, there is little incentive for Americans to slow down our consumption.
Is there hope?
Some proposed fixes on large and small scales are:
1. Focusing on a Circular Economy- the idea with a circular economy is this: people use a lot of plastic and society needs it. BUT people need to recycle a lot more of it and use it over and over and over again. Not only will this eliminate a lot of waste, but it will slow down the accumulation of plastic overall.
-One example of a company practicing circularity: TerraCycle (based in Trenton, New Jersey) that turns plastic trash into new products
*an important quote from Pochiro (of the Association of Plastic Recyclers)- "We're trying to make consumers understand that recycling isn't just about putting your container in the bin... You also need to buy recycled" (NPR, 2019).
2. Remember, we have power as consumers!
-Virgin plastic (not recycled) is a lot cheaper than recycled or reused plastic. By showing companies that there is a market for products that contain recycled plastic, we, as consumers, can influence investments into better recycling practices.
-Look for recycled plastic items such as bottles, clothing, packaging, etc.
-Not only is it important to be aware of what were are consuming/what it is made of, but to consume LESS overall. An important step in this would be switching the 3 R's we are used to, putting "REFUSE" before that "reduce, reuse, and recycle."
3. Learn, keep learning, then learn some more
-It is extremely important that we know what can be recycled and how it can be recycled
-Do your research!
-According to the Atlantic, "25% of what ends up in the blue bins is contaminated" (The Atlantic, 2019).
-In an interesting point, the Atlantic also mentions that "Americans tend to be “aspirational” about their recycling, tossing an item in the blue bin because it makes them feel less guilty about consuming it and throwing it away" (The Atlantic, 2019). I have been guilty of this in my own life. It is easy to throw something in a blue bin, walk away and convince ourselves that we've done all we could. In reality, we need better education and understanding about what we are recycling and where it's going- or isn't going.
-Here are some resources for how to recycle many common recyclables:
4. Find recycling centers in your area
-Each state has different recycling practices, centers, and programs. Do research in your area.
-Here are some helpful links:
For all my Minneapolis people:
-Recycling at UMN- LINK
-Drop-off facilities in Hennepin County- LINK
-Acceptable Recyclables for the City of Minneapolis- LINK
-Recycling Outreach Guide for Minnesota- LINK
-Composting in Minneapolis- LINK
-If you aren't able to compost at your home, the City of Minneapolis will deliver an organics container that gets picked up on the same day as your garbage. Just call the number included in the link!