The Unfortunate Truth About Recycling

    Everyday I diligently add items to my recycling bins for weekly pickup. In my community we only separate into two categories paper/cardboard and bottles/cans. 

    Like most people, my belief is that these items will all be recycled and made into other consumer products that will be used again and again and again.

    The truth is that, despite my best efforts, most of these items are ending up in landfills.

    Why is this happening?

    There is a lot of confusion about what is recyclable and what is not. There is even a phenomenon called “Wishcycling” where people put items into their recycling bin that are not recyclable, but with the “wish” that the item will be recycled anyway. The belief is born out of a lack of understanding of how the recycling process works. 

    There is a general lack of knowledge about what types of items can be recycled. Most communities have their recycling guidelines listed on town websites. In truth most people think they already know the guidelines, or just do not care enough about the details to check. It is much easier to just throw everything in the recycle bins without checking first.

    Contamination is also a big issue that prevents items from being recycled. One messy container with food residue in it can contaminate an entire load of recycling and force it to end up in a landfill instead of being recycled. This is how a lot of perfectly good recyclable materials end up in landfills.

    Not all plastics are created equally.

    Most people will see the triangular arrow symbol on their plastic and assume that it must be ok to put in their recycling bin. But that is not the case.

    According to the EPA, less than 10% of the plastic that we put in our recycling bins 10% is successfully recycled.

    Petroleum, gas, and bottling companies, who are responsible for the bulk of plastic manufacturing and usage, have been creating the marketing message that most plastic is recyclable, when they know that it is not.

    Unfortunately, most plastics that are widely used today are not recyclable.

    Plastics are made from a combination of many chemicals. The process of breaking it down, and isolating the base materials in order to make them available for reuse is not an easy task.

    So, most municipalities can only recycle plastics that have the number 1 or 2 inside of those arrows.    

    Glass and Aluminum

    Plastics get a lot of attention, but there are other items that need a little improvement when it comes to recycling.

    Glass and Aluminum are 100% recyclable.

    They can be recycled over and over again and still maintain their quality.

    Still, more that 25 billion glass bottles and jars end up in landfills each year, instead of being recycled. 

    And only 65% of aluminum is making it to the recycling plants.

    Paper and Cardboard

    Paper and Cardboard have the highest rates of recycling.

    Approximately 100 billion cardboard boxes are produced each year in the U.S.

    70% of it is being recycled.

    Paper is recycled at a slightly lower rate of approximately 68%. Each ton of recycled paper material is enough to save 17 mature trees from being harvested to make fresh paper.

    Food Waste

    Food waste is another issue that most people do not consider, even though half of all the food in the US goes to waste, and only 5% of that does not end up in a landfill.

    There are some non-profit organizations that are dedicated to taking some of that food waste and using it to feed the homeless. 

    Recently there was a law passed in New Jersey that requires food waste producers, such as restaurants and grocery stores, to recycle food waste rather than sending it to landfills or incinerators.

    There are not many municipalities that collect food waste from individual homes, so it is up to people to take care of their own food waste. The easiest way is composting.

    There are many items available to help with your composting needs whether you live in a rural or urban setting.

    Can more be done?

    Yes, more can always be done. But, as with most things in our capitalist society, it needs to make monetary sense.

    It costs approximately $65 per ton to incinerate trash, $50 to send it to a landfill, but only $30 per ton to recycle it. So, recycling does make economic sense. 

    The EPA estimates that 75% of the American’s waste is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it.

    Waste management is not a flashy topic that gets a lot of positive attention, but with the correct support and infrastructure in place, it can be improved. 

    Another solution that has been adopted in Maine and Oregon, and soon to be adopted as legislation in other states in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

    EPR requires plastic makers and sellers to be responsible to some degree for the life cycle of their products, including when they become trash. Putting some of the responsibility and expense of clean up on the producers will hopefully make them more conscious of what they are producing and the damage it can cause.

    We, as a society and part of a global community, need to better evaluate our consumer behaviors, and move away from a throwaway lifestyle and mass consumption of goods, where we assume that what we put in the trash is going to somehow magically be recycled and no longer be a problem. It is simply not true.

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