America’s Recycling Problem

Recycling has grown in popularity in America since the 1960s. According to EPA data, in 1960, 6% of municipal solid waste was recycled. The figure increased to 10% in 1980, 16% in 1990, 29% in 2000, and over 34% in 2015. Increased recycling has led to a decrease in waste sent to landfills, which in turn has led to reductions in GHG emissions from landfills. However, this trend of increased recycling could be ending.

Unbeknownst to many average Americans, much of the recycling that the United States produces was not actually processed in the United States, but was sold to other countries such as China, India, and Indonesia. This allowed recycling companies to make a profit on recycling and lower their own costs. However, China decided in January 2017 that it would no longer accept plastic and paper recycling along with 24 other forms of waste from other countries, including the United States. The Chinese decided that too much trash was co-mingled with recyclable materials. The Chinese ban widened in 2018 to include 16 more materials including stainless steel and titanium. After the Chinese ban went into effect, more U.S. recycling was exported to India and Indonesia. However, India decided this month that it would no longer accept recycling materials from any country, thus eliminating the seven special economic zone exemptions that began in 2016.

Without the foreign market for selling recyclables, many communities are facing a tough economic decision on whether to continue recycling programs. Recycling companies now need to charge cities more in order to continue to make profits, which has left cities and towns to either raise taxes or decrease some services. Soda bottles and cardboard are still profitable, but all of the other paper recycling is where the big costs lie. One of the problems is that Americans are consistently including items in recycling that cannot actually be recycled. This includes paper coffee cups and milk cartons that some municipalities are not equipped to recycle owing to their plastic lining. Some municipalities are now burning rather than recycling materials and are not necessarily disclosing this fact to citizens. A recent New York Times story revealed some of the actions towns are taking. Philadelphia is burning about half of its recycling materials in an incinerator that converts waste into energy.  The Memphis International Airport has recycling bins positioned around the terminal, but all of the products collected are sent to the landfill. Deltona, Florida suspended its recycling program.

Recycling companies do have some tips for consumers. First, do not try to put disposable plastic bags in with regular recycling. Supermarkets will often have special bins for you to recycle these bags since they cannot be recycled with other materials. Check the recycling rules in your municipality. Certain types of waste, including electronics and hazardous materials may need to be taken to a specific facility for recycling. Not all plastics are recyclable. Always check with your municipality for a guide to what types of materials can and cannot be recycled. Make sure caps and lids are on the individual items; although these are often recyclable, they may be discarded if separate from the main item. Although plastic, glass, and metal jars do not need to be sparkling clean, it is a good idea to rinse them.

Further reading:

Lou Del Bello, India to Start Banning Imports of Plastic Waste, Bloomberg BNA Environment and Energy, Mar. 12, 2019.

Michael Corkerey, As Costs Surge, Cities’ Recycling Becomes Refuse, New York Times, Mar. 17, 2019, A1.

Reuters, China Starts New Recycling Drive as Foreign Trash Ban Widens, Jan. 14, 2019.

Ula Chrobak, How to Actually Recycle, Popular Science, Mar. 15, 2019.

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