You hear it all the time now: Recycling in America is collapsing. Recycling is not worth it anymore. We cannot recycle our way out of our plastic pollution problem. Recycling is too confusing. No one knows how to fix the challenges facing recycling. Contamination rates for recyclables are so high nothing really gets recycled anyway.
The truth is recycling is alive in the United States. Every day, thousands of bales of paper, plastic, and metal are generated at recycling facilities and sent to domestic and foreign buyers. Recycling, the process of converting waste materials into new objects, is dependent on several key factors for proper functioning. If any part of a recycling system is off it can impact the entire system. Consumers need to be educated; a strong infrastructure including trucks, sorting machines and processors must be in place; and there needs to be demand in the marketplace for the products recyclers are making. But we must also remember that recycling is a means to a goal (protecting the environment and conserving natural resources) and not the goal itself. To help keep recycling alive and well in your community try following these 8 ways to be a better recycler.
1. Know Your Local Recycling Rules
Recycling is the law in most states, but each state can have different laws around what needs to be recycled and how. Curbside or single-stream collection is often managed at a county or town level and if you have a private waste hauler, you need to be following the guidelines they establish for what can and cannot be placed in your recycling bin. Remember, something isn’t recyclable because you place it in your bin or because it has a symbol on it. It is recyclable if it can be processed by your local recycling infrastructure; it can be manufactured into another product AND there is high demand for that product. And it is also recyclable when it can be collected efficiently, economically and responsibly.
2. Understand the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy
Recycling has many benefits. We recycle to conserve natural resources; prevent pollution through emissions avoidance; to extend the useful life of landfills; because it creates jobs and because it is the law. But it isn’t the only means to protecting our environment. In fact, it falls third on the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy list. What are the top two you ask? Reducing the need to buy/use a product to begin with tops the list at #1 followed by Reuse. So, this means that before you think about recycling something ask yourself – do I need to keep buying this? Or is there another way I could reuse this product or packaging?
3. Don’t Contaminate Your Recycling Bin
Once you get a list of your local recycling rules follow them. Common sense, right? Yes, but keep referring to this list so you don’t start down a path of what is called “wishcycling’ — putting something in a recycling bin that doesn’t belong and believing that the recycling center will be able to spot the error and sort it out. Most single sort recycling in America is taken to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). This is where the source separation and baling of waste types takes place via the use of manual labor and complex machinery. Putting the wrong thing in your recycling bin has real cost implications for your local recycling infrastructure. The main things to avoid:
- Tanglers – anything rope-like that can get snagged in the sorting machinery. Hoses; cords; clothing and chains should not be placed in your curbside single-sort recycling bin.
- Films – plastic wraps, bags, etc. In most states you can take these products back to retailers for recycling so do that over placing them in your recycling bins.
- Bagged Things – you should never place your single sort recycling materials in bags. Processors won’t know what it is in the bags so keep everything loose so they can easily sort things by commodity type when they arrive back at the MRF. Now, if you are using CLYNK for bottle redemption bagging is a different story but for single sort you should avoid it.
- Hazardous Materials – Things like propane tanks; thermostats; batteries and anything consider a needle or a sharp should not be placed in your municipal recycling bin.
- YUCK – that’s right – Food, liquids, diapers and yard debris should not be placed in your recycling bin. Keep garbage in the garbage.
4. Try Composting or Donating Food Scraps
As you start examining what goes into your recycling bin you should also take a look at what goes into your garbage. If you have been wishcycling and now want to be more discerning about what you throw away, you may start to find that your garbage bags are piling up a lot more. So, you can surely look to source reduction and reuse, but many people find that most of their garbage is food waste. Some communities allow for composting or perhaps you live near a farm seeking food scraps for animals. Nature loves a closed loop so if you really want to do right by mother nature, look into backyard composting as there is nothing quite like taking food scraps and converting them back into healthy soil to grow more food.
5. Redeem your Beverage Containers if you Live in a Bottle Bill State
Speaking of closed loops – if your state offers bottle redemption you should keep redeemable beverage containers out of your single sort recycling bin. Why? Well, when you purchase beverage containers in a state that has a bottle bill you are supporting manufacturers playing the primary role in managing the post-consumer life of the products, they make through a deposit system. Deposit systems increase recycling rates and in the case of beverage containers, especially the plastic and aluminum ones, most are turned back into bottles and cans again. An early form of Extended Producer Responsibility, bottle bills, shift the waste management of that product away from you, the consumer and towards the manufacturers. As a multi-stream recycling process (dealing with just three commodity types—plastic, aluminum, and glass) redemption centers like CLYNK are able to limit contamination rates so they create really pure bales of PET Plastic and Aluminum which are in high demand in the marketplace. Bottle bills are often called the rock stars of the recycling world and with states like ME, OR and MI having overall bottle redemption rates of 90% or more it is easy to see why.
6. Understand How Other Materials Can be Recycled
It often feels like we have two choices when it comes to dealing with our waste – recycling bin or trash can. But more and more, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws are coming into play in the United States. EPR is a subset of product stewardship and refers to legislation that extends responsibility to manage end-of-life consumer products to manufacturers. So, instead of your local trash or recycling hauler managing the process, the manufacturer is responsible for managing the costs. In the US, 118 EPR laws have been adopted across 33 states. The laws cover 14 product areas including electronics; pharmaceuticals, batteries, paint, mattresses and mercury-containing thermostats and lamps among others.
7. Buy Reused and Recycled Products
The market for recycled materials will always vary but consumers can help ensure there is a demand for these materials by purchasing products that contain recycled content. A lot of households like cleaning with paper towels but have you ever considered buying paper towels made from recycled paper? That simple act can support the recycled paper market. Instead of shopping for new clothes, head to your local thrift shop to see what bargains you can find. And if you have clothes or textiles to recycle don’t place those in your curbside recycling – look to donate.
8. Encourage Brands you Love to Adopt Product Stewardship Goals
Product stewardship is the act of minimizing the health, safety, environmental, and social impacts of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages, while also maximizing economic benefits. The manufacturer, or producer, of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. You can write and encourage your favorite brands to make packaging that is easily recyclable. Packaging that includes recycled materials—metal, plastic, glass, or paper—almost always has a lower footprint than packaging made of virgin material. But also understand that recyclability or compostability isn’t always the marker for the lowest environmental impact.
Don’t be fooled by all the recycling myths out there. Examine your own consumption and recycling habits and take small steps to improve your household and then start to encourage your friends and neighbors. New technologies and solutions are emerging every day to optimize recycling so let’s keep our eyes on the prize of protecting our planet, how we act locally will make the difference globally.