Is Recycling Really in Trouble?

Submitted by bporter on


You might have heard a few scary things about recycling lately, like news headlines hinting at its demise. The industry is certainly at a crossroads but is not doomed to collapse if we mend its malfunctions. We’re going to break down what is happening and how your actions are essential in repairing recycling. 

Why is this happening? 

For decades, the US has exported a third of its collected recyclables, and half of that has gone to China1. American companies became reliant on overseas buyers for the flawed, low-quality recyclables not in demand domestically. But now, China is pushing back. A policy called the “National Sword” has gone into effect and has shaken up the recycling industry with its stringent requirements on contaminated items. The policy includes a ban on 24 types of imported scrap materials and has set what has been called a “nearly impossible” 0.5% contamination limit for bales of recyclables.  

Contamination refers to either non-recyclable items being mixed in with recyclables or items that are still dirty with food or beverage residue being placed into recycling streams. Contamination is a problem in the US due to the way many people and municipalities practice recycling. Material recovery facilities (MRFs) are where our recyclables are taken to be sorted, baled, and sold to processing plants. About 65% of MRFs in the United States are single-stream, meaning all recyclables go into one bin. This removes the need for residents to sort before they put something in the bin, and makes participation easier, but it increases chances for contamination.

Think of putting a juice bottle with a bit of liquid in with a stack of old magazines. The residue can easily soak the paper fibers and contaminate them, making them unfit for sale. Contamination can also come from putting improper items in the bin, like plastic straws that aren’t recyclable and can easily be sorted incorrectly and contaminate paper bales. Considering the average MRF receives materials with up to 32% contamination2, this is not an easy problem to correct overnight.  

What are the impacts? 

The extent of how this policy may be impacting your local recycling program can depend on how reliant your area was on exporting materials (learn more about impacts in your state through Waste Dive). But stakeholders throughout the system have acknowledged that we’ve needed to clean up our recycling for a long time and while jarring, this policy should come as no surprise. Some MRFs have begun operating machinery and conveyor lines at a slower pace to more thoroughly pluck out non-recyclable items. Some companies are frantically searching for new foreign markets. A few municipalities are scaling back what materials they accept, and there are cases of counties suspending all recycling for the time being4. These are discouraging responses, but this change is a crossroads for the industry, not a death sentence.  

How can you help? 

Households and business nationwide need to be at the heart of solving the contamination issue. It might seem hard to believe that our daily choices can collectively result in massive improvements to the recycling system, but the idea that our actions are inconsequential is the myth that’s contributed to this problem. There are four key action steps we can weave into our daily habits that will bolster recycling and allow us to achieve even greater environmental and economic benefits.  

  1. Don’t be a wish-cycler. Wish-cycling is putting something in the bin that you hope is recyclable instead of only things you know are. Follow local rules of what is accepted for recycling. These are made based on what your local program can collect, sort, and sell. Making sure to follow these rules reduces the odds of putting an unacceptable item in the bin and can curb contamination. You can find these listed on your town’s website or search using resources like Earth911.
  2. Empty and rinse recyclables. You don't need to scrub your recyclables perfectly clean, but it's important for them not to be coated with food or liquid. Make sure containers are emptied out and if needed, give a quick rinse and shake excess liquid off before tossing them in the bin. 
  3. Choose recycled-content products. If we aren’t demanding recycled materials to displace the need for virgin material extraction, then we aren’t closing the loop in recycling. When purchasing a product, look for a label about its recycled content (not just that it’s recyclable). Often a company will print the percentage of a product or packaging that’s recycled content on the label. Not all products that have recycled content will specify, but picking items with a clear commitment to using recycled materials is one important way to signal that demand. 
  4. Communicate to your local government that you value recycling and it needs to be a priority and tell companies you buy from to make products using recycled materials that are recyclable in all areas. You can do this through contacting entities directly via social media, email, or sending in letters. If you learn that your municipality is considering halting recycling collection, gather resident and business signatures together and submit it to your local officials to show how important recycling is to the community.  

The actions of individuals and businesses are pivotal to making this a catalyst for positive, permanent change. Contamination that has spurred these issues is something we can prevent every day.

You can learn more about recycling wins and fails in our Rethinking Recycling issue of the Green American.


This blog was updated on 1/2/2019.

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