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Recycling Issues in the US and Approaches to Solving the Problems

October 01, 2019

We wrote about the need for recycling in an earlier post, and wanted to follow up on a bit more research we've been doing about the issues with US recycling ever since China stopped taking in our recycled materials in January of 2018.  

Why Did China Stop Taking our Recyclable Plastics?

In January 2018 China banned the import of most plastics and other materials in large part due to the fact that there was a large amount of contamination from the US garbage, meaning material that was supposed to be recycled went into China's landfills, creating an environmental issue for China.  

What has this Meant for US Garbage and Recycling Centers?

Unfortunately, our system is not equipped to manage the large scale of recycling required to take in plastics and other materials.  So many communities simply stopped their recycling programs or diverted the recycled materials into landfills. 

The US has Very Low Rates of Recycling

Even if we had the capacity to recycle all of our plastics, only 9% of discarded plastics make it to recycling centers.  Part of this is the poor recycling infrastructure in place, but another part is the cost-driven motivation by the for-profit waste collection companies. So depending on the cost of recycling versus throwing away, the collection company may simply take the items that were in your recycle bin and throw it into the landfill. 

Approaches to Solving the Recycling Issues in the US

Given this, it will take government action to create incentives that force recycling, such as land fill taxes or packaging rules for brands to use standard materials to simplify recycling streams.  If it's more costly to throw stuff into the garbage, private waste companies will recycle.  

Another approach to improving recycling is to make multi-stream collection easier for consumers.  Many European and Asian countries have accessible bins well marked to cover plastic, glass, paper, and metal items - making collection, contamination, and recycling rates higher. 

A bright side to the China ban on our garbage is that we are seeing an investment on packaging and recycling innovation.   Nestle announced a joint venture with a plastics recycling facility in Ohio that turns old polypropylene into a virgin-like material that can be used for higher value items like food packaging.  This is a shift from traditional recycling where plastics that were recycled could only be used for lower value items.  Nestle has committed to making all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.  

New York City is handling their garbage and recycling processes much better than other cities.  By and large this has to do with the shear volume of garbage and therefore the economics of recycling makes sense versus hauling garbage to landfills.  New York produces 33 million tons of garbage per year - so coming up with a long-term plan to recycle was an imperative both economically and environmentally.  And while other cities may not have the volume of garbage as New York, they could learn from the city's entrepreneurial direction of handling the recycling issue and their push for a zero waste culture among it's residents. 

There are numerous other investments into recycling being made stateside which will be needed to bring the recycling segment into the modern era.  Advanced machines using optical recognition to spot materials and sort and robotics are now being incorporated into recycling plants, making them more efficient and cost-effective.  

As individuals there's a lot we can do to help move the needle.  Learning more about recycling in your community and talking to your local politicians is one way to get involved to learn what happens to your recycled goods.  Using less single use plastics and coffee cups is another simple habit to change - and re-using what you can before putting into the recycle bin are ways to help.  

Banning plastics altogether has been advocated by many to help with the garbage and recycling issues we face.  But numerous studies have shown that the lifetime environmental impact on plastics versus other materials is less in terms of carbon footprint and pollutants created.  Perhaps it is a blend of how we use the materials along with our ability to recycle and re-use the material that makes the best case for solving this problem we created.  

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