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Does Everything You Put in Recycle Bins Actually Get Recycled?

A word as commonplace in today’s world as “recycling” would seem to have a very specific meaning to everyone, but in fact, depending on who you ask, the definition varies wildly. 

At the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), recycling is defined as, “a series of activities in which a material is processed into specification-grade commodities, and consumed as raw materials, in lieu of virgin materials, to manufacture new products.” While the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) defines recycling as, “the collection, sorting, marketing, processing, and transforming or remanufacturing of recyclable materials into recycled materials and recycled products.” 

Both definitions (and others by different agencies) sound very technical, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a more straightforward definition: “collecting and reprocessing a resource so it can be used again.” For example, melting down aluminum cans to make new aluminum products.  

No matter the complexity or simplicity of the definition, recycling is basically “reusing” materials to keep them out of the landfill or from being incinerated, and that helps conserve natural resources, reduce pollution, and save energy.  

Many environmental agencies believe solely in recycling’s more esoteric and “green” benefits (which of course are important), but when it comes right down to it, recycling is a for-profit industry to the annual tune of nearly $117 billion in economic output just in the U.S.  

Recycling supports more than 681,000 jobs with workers earning nearly $38 billion (and $5.5 billion in tax revenue) across the country. According to the EPA, each ton of material recycled results in $55.23 in wages and $9.42 in tax revenue.  Recycling just one ton of material is equivalent to reducing greenhouse gas emissions the equivilent of 7,335 miles driven by an average vehicle.  

The steps in the recycling process are generally the same for most materials: 

Step 1: Collecting and Processing — This step starts with either curbside collection or drop-off, then advances to sorting, cleaning and processing the materials that are then bought and sold just as new raw materials are. 

Step 2: Manufacturing — More and more everyday products are manufactured with recycled content, including newspaper, paper towels, drink containers, and detergent bottles. 

Step 3: New Products — Recycled materials are also used in new products, such as plastic in carpeting, park benches, car bumpers, cereal boxes, comic books, motor oil, and egg cartons. Read any product packaging and you’ll see 1 of the 3 classes of recycled materials used: 

Recycled-content product — waste from either collection or manufacturing is used to create a new product, often with the stated percentage of recycled materials used. 

Post-consumer content — this class can only be materials that were collected from homes or businesses through a collection process. 

Recyclable product — these don’t contain recycled materials but can be collected, processed, and manufactured into new products after they’ve been used. 

With such great re-uses for discarded waste and materials, it would seem like everything should be recycled. Unfortunately, some materials can’t be recycled, but most can. Here are the top 10 items that should always be recycled, according to the Recycle Nation

1 Newspapers — Recycling newspaper saves up to 60% of the total energy needed for new newsprint. Up to 75,000 trees are needed just to produce the Sunday edition of the New York Times.  

2 Cardboard — Recycling cardboard saves 24% of the energy needed for virgin cardboard.  

3 Paperboard — This is a common material to make cereal and shoe boxes.  

4 Aluminum cans — Besides reducing the need to mine ore to create new aluminum, recycling cans takes 95% less energy than creating new cans, with the energy to produce 20 recycled cans needing the same amount of energy to produce one new can.  

5 Steel cans — Used to hold canned goods (often referred to as tin cans), nearly 69% of all steel is recycled in North America. 

6 Plastic #1 bottles — Usually clear and used to hold water and soda, this type of bottle is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE). Every hour, Americans throw away approximately 2.5 million plastic bottles. Recycling one ton of plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a two-person household for an entire year.  

7 Plastic #2 through #7 — These include common everyday products such as shampoo and detergent bottles, and currently are one of the most common plastic products found in landfills and in the world’s waterways. 

8 Glass containers — From pickles to olives, pasta sauce to soy sauce, glass bottles can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality and can be used for up to 95% of raw materials. 

9 Magazines — Once a more common household product on every coffee table, magazines are now often digital, but the print versions (even with glossy pages) can be recycled. 

10 Mixed Paper — Copy paper, junk mail and kid’s old homework can all be recycled, but sadly about one-third of all waste in American streams is of this type. 

 HOWEVER, RECYCLING ISN’T PERFECT 

While there are countless benefits to recycling, the system has gotten a bad rap lately. According to the Columbia Climate School at Columbia University in New York City, while Americans are dutifully putting their recyclable items in the recycle bins, much of it doesn’t actually get recycled. 

Contaminated materials (dirty food containers, plastic straws, bags, takeout containers and eating utensils) prevent large batches of materials from being recycled, and that means they get incinerated (bad for the air) or wind up in landfills (bad for the soil and water supply). 

What most Americans probably don’t know is that our trash is commonly not recycled in the U.S., with it historically being shipped to other countries. But that system was majorly impacted when, after several decades, China set new policies in 2018 that banned plastics and other materials that were not clean enough to recycle. In 2016 alone, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper and metals to China, and only 30% of it was recyclable. The rest ended up polluting China’s countryside and waters, with an estimated 1.5 million tons of plastic ending up in the ocean off China’s coast.  

In 2018 when the U.S. started shipping recyclables to other Asian countries (68,000 containers-full) such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, those countries then initiated their own bans on American waste, causing the U.S. to divert the waste to yet other Asian countries with cheap labor and fewer environmental rules. The U.S. still ships more than 1 million metric tons of plastic waste per year to those countries, with a varying portion (20% to 70%) being unusable, then discarded, ultimately negatively impacting water and crops and causing an increase in respiratory illness due to the waste being incinerated.  

Besides more strict overseas policies, the basic economics of recycling have changed. For some cities, the costs to run a recycling program are higher than what they earned from selling recyclables to other countries. For example, in 2017, Stamford, CT made $95,000 selling recyclables, but in 2018, they had to pay $700,000 to have them removed. It’s reported that more than 70 municipalities ended their curbside recycling program because they were too costly to run, while others increased the costs for residents or limited what could be collected. 

According to the EPA, of the nearly 268 million tons of municipal waste generated by Americans in 2017, only about 94 million tons of it were recycled or composted. Discarded paper and cardboard accounted for 66% of what was recycled, while 27% of the glass and only 8% of the plastic could be recycled. Glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely, while paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it’s too degraded and plastic only 1 or 2 times, as the polymers break down.  

While that all sounds like a gloomy future for recycling programs, there are new developments on the horizon. The global market for high-quality recycled materials is growing, with the demand for paper and cardboard is expected to increase by approximately 1.2% per year. Global plastic recycling is projected to grow by $14.74 billion from now until 2024, to be used in packaging, building, construction, electronics, furniture, and textiles.  

The key to fixing the problem is developing a more comprehensive domestic recycling program and not relying on sending recyclables to other countries. That involves improving the technology that sorts and recovers the materials, incorporating more recycled materials into more products, and creating a higher demand for products made from recycled materials.  

Through strategies such as education, incentives, penalties, and legislation, more than 37 states are working on more than 250 bills to deal with plastic pollution. Eight states have banned single-use plastic bags, while adding a charge for paper bags. Other programs include refundable deposits on all single use-beverage bottles (plastic, metal and glass), and better ways to handle plastic, including “chemical recycling” that returns discarded plastic back to its original components. Breaking down hard-to-recycle and contaminated plastics to their molecular level allows them to be converted into high-grade synthetic oils, chemicals, and other plastics, allowing the recycled plastic to be reused an indefinite number of times. 

What can the average American do who wants to help? Here are the top five ways to help improve our recycling efforts: 

  • Learn the recycling symbols to know what can be recycled 

  • Rinse out bottles, cans and food containers 

  • Buy products in glass containers, not plastic 

  • Reduce packaging waste by shopping at farmer’s markets and buying bulk foods 

  • Switch to reusable produce bags 

Remember the 3Rs — Reduce waste, Reuse items as much as possible, and Recycle everything possible. 

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