Recycling should be easy, so why isn’t it?

Recycling should be easy, so why isn’t it?
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When was the last time you thought about where your trash went?
No, really.

Obviously we all know that whatever trash we put out gets picked up and taken to the nearest landfill. But what about recycling? Most of us put our bottles and cans into a bag or bin, it gets taken, and then we forget all about it. We assume it’s going to be turned into a new bottle or can and we move on with our lives.

Well, it turns out a lot of that is just wishful thinking.

The “chasing arrows” recycling symbol is put on a lot of stuff. But not everything it’s put on is recyclable. Confusing af, right? That’s led to a lot of wishcycling or people not even attempting to recycle at all, which is no bueno.

In 2018 (the last time the EPA provided figures on recycling), roughly 69 million tons of waste was recycled and 25 million tons were composted in the United States. Together, that comes out to be about a 32.1% recycling and composting rate. Ummmm, yea definitely could be better.

Despite the EPA not releasing any newer figures, the plastics industry reported that in 2021 the U.S. had an abysmally low recycling rate of about 5 percent for post-consumer plastic waste, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014. Yikes.

That sits in stark contrast to how much paper and glass is recycled—paper has a 66% recycling rate and glass hits at around 31.3%. And even those rates show that there’s still a lot of progress to be made.

Let’s look at some other countries’ recycling rates just as a frame of reference.

Reported Recycling Rat

Since 2016, Germany has had the highest recycling rate in the world, with about 67% of all waste being recycled. Germany is so good at recycling for a couple of reasons. First, it’s gone to considerable lengths to standardize recycling containers throughout the country. There are color-coded containers all throughout the country for people to use. Second, Germans enjoy recycling and the sense of civic virtue it bestows. They have a true culture of environmental sustainability.

Along with Germany, Singapore (60.6%), Wales (60.2%), South Korea (59.0%), and Austria (55.9%) make up the top five countries that recycle the most.

That’s not making our 31% look too good…

So why are our rates so low?

Our recycling system is confusing and ineffective, for one thing. Every town, or county, has its own recycling rules. And some might not have any at all. In recent years, because of Covid and growing difficulties finding buyers for plastic waste, some local governments have stopped recycling programs altogether.

Then comes figuring out if what you want to recycle is recyclable where you live. As a rule of thumb, paper and cans are almost always recyclable. When it comes to glass, it can be hit or miss, but it’s still often widely recyclable. And then when it comes to plastic, only certain numbers are recyclable and those numbers change no matter where you go.

Plastic items marked with 1 or 2 are widely recyclable in the U.S. Type 5 is also accepted by a growing number of curbside recycling programs. But other numbers — particularly for soft plastics like grocery bags, chip bags, or resealable sandwich bags, typically labeled 4 — are not accepted in curbside programs. And type 7 is a catch-all for various plastics, so it’s almost never recycled.

It’s no wonder some people have given up on recycling.

Plastics are also recycled at a much lower rate than other materials because the process to recycle is difficult. And even if something can technically be recycled, there’s often no market for the material. It’s sometimes cheaper to just make new plastic. And there’s currently not much incentive for companies to use recycled content.

Recycling should be easy, so why isn’t it?

So what do we do then to try and fix this?

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy fix. But there are some promising solutions that could be scaled up and make some real change across the U.S. Like enacting bans on single-use plastic bags and non recyclable single-use plastic food-service products, ensuring widespread access to water-refilling stations, reducing the usage of the “chasing arrows” symbol to combat misleading recycling claims, or passing extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, which means companies would bear the responsibility of the full lifecycle of their products including what happens to it once you’re done with it.

As individuals, we can keep on recycling and make sure that we’re following our locality’s recycling rules to a T. You can check your local information with Earth911 or Keep America Beautiful’s website. You can also consider switching to different products or brands that utilize less packaging, more recyclable packaging, or no packaging at all!

And getting involved in local efforts to improve recycling or reduce local plastic use is another option. That can include contacting your local government officials about recycling practices you’d like to see put in place, contacting your landlord to institute a recycling program for your building, working with a local organization to host a recycling event, or just creating a system with your own family.

It’s also important to remember that in this post we’re talking about municipal waste, which refers to household and commercial waste, and accounts for only 10% of the total waste produced worldwide. Other types of waste include industrial wastes, agricultural wastes, medical waste, radioactive waste or sewage sludge

But managing our municipal waste is still incredibly important because it has an outsized effect on pollution and therefore soaks up a lot of waste management budgets. So getting a grip on this kind of waste is a big deal.


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