A Better System of Recycling Is Possible (With a Little Help)

A 2018 policy change upended America's recycling system. But a better system is possible—with a little help.

recycling bins with items sorting

Getty Images

On April 22, 1970, more than 20 million people across the United States participated in the first Earth Day, attending demonstrations and rallies to protest against pollution and participating in teach-ins to learn about the deterioration of the environment. That first day of organized advocacy for environmental protections has been credited with helping to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as laying the groundwork for legislation like the Clean Air Act.

Many of the events of the first Earth Day focused on the problem of litter and what to do with people’s unwanted waste, and in the following decade, communities across the country established public and private programs that made it possible to divert products made from paper, plastic, metal, and glass away from landfills and incinerators. While no nationally mandated recycling program was established in the United States, participation in recycling programs across the country gradually increased over the years, and, for many, recycling has become a part of everyday life. Most people paid little, if any, attention to where any of that recyclable material went. 

But in 2018, China, which handled nearly one-quarter of the world’s recyclables, adopted a policy it called “National Sword.” Frustrated with the amount of trash mixed in with the recyclables that were sent by other countries, the Chinese government banned 24 types of recyclables that had previously been accepted and set a much lower threshold for acceptable levels of contamination. Recyclers in the United States panicked; they had nowhere else to send their growing piles of waste as revenues plummeted. Cities like Philadelphia began simply tossing recyclable materials in incinerators and landfills, in part because the rates charged by contractors to sort those materials properly became too costly.

Today, the market for recyclable materials has largely stabilized. However, Sanne Stienstra, a natural resource specialist with the materials management program at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, believes the US is at a tipping point for making major improvements in recycling and waste reduction. “It’s not about getting back to what it was before the National Sword,” she says. “It’s about creating a recycling system that’s even better than it was before that disruption.”  

The Benefits of Recycling

There are many benefits to recycling—and those benefits aren’t just restricted to limiting the negative consequences of consumption on the environment.

The most obvious benefit is that recycling reduces the amount of emissions that cause climate change in a number of ways. For example, as Cody Marshall, the chief community strategy officer at The Recycling Partnership, notes, “Recycling an aluminum can is a lot less energy-intensive than creating a new aluminum can.”

Using recycled materials to produce office paper, metal food cans, and other products yields a number of benefits. Fewer new raw materials, like wood and metal ores, need to be extracted, which not only conserves resources but also reduces the amount of energy required for their extraction, processing, and transportation. It also means that less material ends up sitting in landfills and burning in trash incinerators, both of which produce significant greenhouse gas emissions. 

Recycling can help to reduce pollution in other ways, too—ways that many people may now find immediately understandable. Plastic pollution in waterways has gotten a lot of attention in recent years thanks to documentaries like The Story of Plastic and videos showing islands of plastic trash swirling in ocean gyres. “People have had that visceral experience of seeing plastic in a bird’s stomach,” says Stienstra, and have gotten an earful about microplastics in fish and salt

Recycling’s other benefit is that it’s a big industry that creates a lot of American jobs, and it has the potential for growth, particularly after the implementation of National Sword, since a lot of the work of recycling has since been on-shored. “There are a lot of businesses in the US that rely on recycled material,” says Resa Dimino, senior consultant at RRS, a recycling consulting company. “Recycling is part of a material supply chain. It’s not just a feel-good environmental activity. Brands and companies are making significant investments to improve recycling infrastructure. But none of it works if people don’t put materials in the bin.”

The Challenges of Recycling 

A pizza pie in a takeout box from Patsy's in New York City

Vivian Kong

Recycling isn’t easy. One of main problems in the US is that the standards for the types of materials that are accepted for recycling can vary widely, depending on local regulations. For example, in New York City, you can toss plastic lids and aluminum foil in the recycling. In Des Moines, both those items are on the “no” list.

For some categories, like food and soda cans and glass bottles, figuring out what can be recycled and what can’t is pretty straightforward. For others, not so much. We tend to think of paper as easy to recycle, but there’s a list of things like wrapping paper, construction paper and the plastic-coated paper that holds many frozen foods that often can’t be manufactured and made into something new. And just because a plastic container has the three-sided recycling symbol on it doesn’t automatically mean it can be recycled in your community.

In addition, sometimes the rules change. For years, consumers were told not to put pizza boxes in their recycling bins because residual grease caused problems in processing facilities. But just last year, the American Forest and Paper Association, a trade association for the wood products industry, gave the green light to recycle pizza boxes as long as they don’t contain any food, says Dimino.

The confusion surrounding the question of what can and can’t be recycled—and people’s well-meaning desire to recycle as much as possible—has led to a practice many advocates call “wishful recycling,” in which people place materials in recycling bins with the hope that someone will figure out how to recycle them. Wishful recycling is one of the primary sources of the contamination in recyclable materials that led the Chinese government to implement the National Sword.

Dimino notes that the costs for the collection, processing, and shipping of recyclable materials are rising, and the trend line isn’t likely to improve, since packaging is becoming increasingly varied and complex. And of the material that is collected and shipped off for recycling, it’s not entirely clear what happens to all of it. “We’re still sending a lot of our materials overseas, and there’s very little transparency that it’s not becoming pollution somewhere else,” says Stienstra. “A harsh reality of the recycling system is that we rely on [other countries’] willingness to take our contaminated material. That has not been fixed. There’s very little transparency about where materials go.”

But one of the greatest obstacles may be participation rates in community recycling programs, which are relatively low. According to research done by The Recycling Partnership, less than 32% of materials that could be recycled in the United States make their way into recycling bins.

Though recycling in the US isn’t perfect, Dimino encourages consumers to keep at it. Recycling only works if people believe in it and continue to invest their time in its success. “You can’t stop and start recycling programs,” she says. “Most communities in the US have stuck with it and kept their programs rolling, and that’s been really important in maintaining stability in the system.” And that’s a good thing, because once people get out of the habit of recycling, it’s hard to get back into it.

How the Recycling System Can Be Improved

There’s real reason for optimism that the systems for recycling are going to get better. One shift that is inspiring some hope for change is the growing focus on behalf of advocates and activists on making the producers of food packaging and other recyclable materials part of the solution. Right now, consumers pay for most of the costs of recycling through a combination of taxes and fees paid to recycling haulers and utility companies, depending on the community. “Producers have no legal or significant role in the recycling system at all,” notes Stienstra.

Manufacturers of things like milk cartons and plastic have an important role to play in the recycling process, Dimino says—and not just in supporting collection programs. “They can reduce packaging where possible, simplify packaging where possible, use materials that are easier to recycle, design packaging for recyclability, and eliminate packaging features that are problematic to recycling.”

One way to make companies take some responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products, including what happens to them when it comes time to dispose of them, is to pass laws that require extended producer responsibility or product stewardship programs. Oregon’s Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act, New York’s Senate Bill 1185, and Hawaii’s House Bill 1316 are some current examples of legislation that would require companies to pay for some of the costs associated with recycling.

“Manufacturers recognize they need to be part of the solution,” says Marshall. The Recycling Partnership has developed a set of policy recommendations that would increase public education and awareness of recycling, bring new investments to recycling facilities, and strengthen the ability of local government and community programs to collect recyclable materials. Changes would be funded through a “packaging and printed paper fee” paid by brands and a disposal surcharge on waste generators. The hope is that by strengthening recycling infrastructure at multiple steps along the chain—and taking some of the financial burden off fiscally-stressed local governments—communities will be better able to collect recyclable products and return them to the manufacturers who need them. 

What You Can Do to Help

Where does all of this leave present-day champions of recycling? 

The most important way to support the recycling system is to recycle correctly. “Always check your local program and make sure what you’re putting in the bin is actually accepted by that program,” says Stienstra. “Even if you think you know what’s accepted, you should check. People often rely on a fact they learned 10 years ago and don’t realize it changed. Staying up on your community’s recycling program is important.”

Even if something is imprinted with the three-sided recycling symbol, it might not be recyclable at the local level, says Marshall. Instead, rely on information from the local government agency that handles waste management or your waste hauler.

Make sure containers are free of food or liquid before they’re thrown in the recycling. “I’d also suggest looking outside the kitchen for recyclable items,” says Marshall. Items such as shampoo and laundry detergent bottles are often highly recyclable.

Many other products are recyclable if they’re taken to an appropriate collection facility. “A lot of grocery stores and retail stores will take back film plastic,” says Dimino. (Not the stuff Kodak produces, but plastic items such as grocery bags, wrap from paper towels and toilet paper, and deflatable shipping pillows). Companies such as Staples and Best Buy may take electronics, printer cartridges and other office supplies. Thrift stores can often take pots and pans, clothing, furniture and other household items for reuse.

Recycling provides a valuable service, both from an environmental and economic perspective. But if you care more about the former, the more important thing to do is reduce consumption and reuse materials whenever possible.

 “Where you have the opportunity, use durable or reusable packaging or serviceware,” says Stienstra. “Pound to pound, the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by not creating something in the first place are much greater than recycling.” Buy fruits and vegetables in bulk rather than in plastic bags and clamshells. Wash out tubs that held cottage cheese or butter and use them to store leftovers.

Also, consider becoming an advocate for better recycling policies and programs. “If this issue is being talked about in your community, write to your legislators or city councilors and let them know how you feel,” says Stienstra. “Where it’s not being discussed, bring it up. People have that power to put this issue on the table.”