What really happens when you recycle something?

After decades of activism around getting us all to recycle more of our waste, for many of us, sorting our trash has become second nature (and now many cities take it one step further, adding composting bins into the mix). This emphasis on the importance of recycling has been so deeply ingrained that many of us (me included) don’t necessarily think that hard about what’s actually happening to our waste after we’ve added it to the recycling bin. So, today we’ll explore the question of how effective recycling really is.

For a long time, many recyclables (70%) generated in the US were actually shipped abroad, to China and other countries. Once there, only about 9% of the plastics were actually being recycled; the rest was incinerated or sent to landfills. However, a policy change enacted about a year ago (the law took effect in January 2018) effectively bans most recyclables from being shipping to China. (Essentially, China increased its standards for accepting recyclables, requiring that they be significantly more pure than previous requirements; almost no recycling facilities in the US can meet this standard.) This policy change has upended the markets for US recyclables; in the past, municipalities could collect recycling, then sell the material abroad, and effectively finance their recycling programs. Now, however, it can cost significantly more to recycle materials than it does to throw them out, so some cities having been simply discontinuing their recycling programs, or declining to collect especially low-value plastics.

A few materials can be effectively recycled; for example, aluminum cans. Paper and cardboard are also worth recycling, as their production from raw materials is expensive and resource-intensive. However, glass and plastic are both less desirable recyclables, as the materials to produce them are pretty cheap (they are made from sand and petroleum, respectively). This easy availability of raw materials means that there are limited markets for recycled materials, so the supply of recyclables far outpaces the demand.

While your recyclables may or may not end up in a landfill, there are things you can to do to be a better recycler.

  • Make sure all your recyclables are clean and dry; wetness promotes the growth of mold, which can make a whole batch of recyclables unsellable.
  • Any paper product that has been soiled (ie. with oil from pizza) should be composted rather than recycled.
  • Carefully check your city’s website for what materials are actually recyclable; just because you put it in the recycling bin DOES NOT mean that it will be recycled, and putting non-recyclable materials (ie. hangers, plastic film, bowling balls) will massively slow down the sorting process, making the process of recycling even more expensive and labor intensive.

The changes in China’s waste policy are a huge deal for municipal recycling programs, and we will have to wait and see how markets for recyclables change with this shift. It’s possible that we will find smarter, cheaper ways of recycling waste domestically that will create better market incentives for recycling. However, these changes should make all of us even more aware that we can’t keep consuming things like single-use plastics and then undo that consumption by recycling it. We truly need to reduce our consumption of these goods in the first place.

In addition to making a personal commitment to reducing our waste, it is also absolutely critical that we push on both manufacturers and the government to create greater incentives for reducing waste production. Ideas like extended producer responsibility and the circular economy, in which producers are incentivized to take ownership of their packaging and manufacturing processes, could be drivers of reductions in the amount of waste produced in the process of consuming goods. Patagonia was one of the earliest companies to take on this responsibility, but recently many more companies (including some big brands you might not expect) have started working to take responsibility for the lifetime of the packaging and their products. Tweet at companies you buy things from and ask them what they are doing to reduce or take responsibility for the packaging they use; in this age of social media, this can be an effective way to at least raise the issue.

You can also write your representatives, at all levels, and ask for taxation of the production of raw materials that go into things like plastic and paper; market incentives will need to change to make recycled materials more attractive than the production of new materials.

Last, TerraCycle has launched a new initiative called Loop, with the mission of partnering with brands to deliver products to your home in reusable packaging. It remains to be seen if it will take off in a big way, but it’s an exciting idea that I hope will gain traction. I just signed up on the waitlist, although the service will only be in select cities for the time being (and I don’t think that Seattle is on the list, sadly…).

In researching this post and learning more about recycling, I’m definitely a bit disappointed to know how ineffective recycling is (to be clear, I still think we should recycle, if only because cities make it easy to do, and even a small waste diversion does seem valuable to me). But, I think it really underscores how incredibly important it is to consider the broader economic forces that drive us to make decisions. We’ve made it cheap and easy for companies to sell us packaging with their products, without taking on any responsibility for the lifetime effects of that packaging. As consumers, we need to demand companies work through the whole lifecycle of their products, and we need to ask our government to provide the right incentives to companies who take on this responsibility. Waste generation is a great example of personal choice intersecting with policy, and there are actions we can take on both sides of the issue.

For myself, given what I know about the trash I produce (easily 90% food packaging waste), my goal is to start buying more of my food at farmers markets that sell food with less packaging. I’m also going work on a waste census (via photographic evidence) of what goes out in the trash and recycling, and see where I can identify easy waste streams to change to more recycling-friendly materials (ie. buying more canned beer, rather than bottles). I’ll report back on whether these changes allow me to make significant reductions in the amount of waste, especially glass and plastic, that we produce in our house. Stay tuned!

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