Reduce, Reuse and Recycle were the three ‘Rs’ that summed up the sustainability movement when it started in 1970. It would be nice to think that we’ve come a long way since those early aspirations, but the state of recycling today paints a different picture.
China’s National Sword policy, which started in 2018, effectively stopped most imports of recycling material from industrialized countries like the U.S. While the change felt sudden and harsh, it actually took a step in the right direction towards transparency.
China had previously absorbed much of the world’s plastic waste under the guise of recycling, but only a small fraction of the material it imported ever got recycled. The rest continued to flow from Chinese rivers to the ocean. With a mounting ocean plastic crisis wreaking havoc on nature, China decided to focus inward on domestic recycling. That’s when it established very high standards, turning back recycling bales that didn’t meet its 0.5% contamination rate.
The changes have been crippling for local waste management systems. While recycling remains a popular pursuit in the United States, the global trade changes have cast doubt on its efficacy. In this article, we question what it would take for the U.S. to provide an effective recycling system. We also examine whether recycling holds the answer to our waste problem, or if other solutions might be more effective.
The benefits of recycling
It’s important to remember that not all materials can be easily or continuously recycled. Sometimes the cost of recycling, including sorting equipment and labor, outweighs the cost of simply using raw materials.
Yet, giving up on recycling feels a lot like giving up on sustainability. It offers no solution to the ever present waste in our environment. Here are some reasons why recycling still matters.
Why is recycling important?
Recycling offers one strategy among many to lower our negative environmental impact. While we should use all of the tricks up our sleeves, recycling plays an important role. Here are its benefits.
Waste diversion and pollution prevention. That’s a fancy way of saying keeping waste out of landfills or incinerators. This helps us avoid pollution such as chemicals leaching from plastic into groundwater. As a result of recycling, materials remain useful.
Preserving raw materials and natural resources. Anytime you purchase a recycled cardboard box, you save a tree. Much of the paper we consume also derives from delicate rainforest ecosystems, so by consuming recycled paper, you ease the burden on these biodiverse landscapes.
And when you recycle aluminum cans, you eliminate the need to extract that material from mines, which can greatly impact the natural environment. In addition, the amount of water consumed during the process of recycling is often lower than the amount used to produce goods from raw materials.
Lowering greenhouse emissions and energy usage. Since many of the raw materials we use travel very long distances to reach us, recycling helps us eliminate the emissions from both the transportation and production of those materials.
Recycling also provides energy savings. Take a look at the energy savings in comparison to producing the raw equivalents for these commonly recycled goods:
- Aluminum: 95% savings
- Plastics: 70% savings
- Steel: 60% savings
- Newspaper: 40% savings
- Glass: 40% savings
Job creation and stream of revenue. For every 10,000 tons of waste, you’d need 6 employees to dispose of it in a landfill compared to 36 employees to recycle it. Effective recycling can also provide the supply to manufacturers in the market for recyclable materials. When manufacturers purchase these materials, it creates a stream of revenue for the recycling collection program.
How well can we recycle different materials?
The ideal form of recycling means you can repeatedly use the same material again and again to produce items of the same quality. For some materials, like glass, this ideal is possible. However, other materials degrade significantly during the recycling process.
Here are the number of times different commonly recycled materials can be recycled before their useful life ends:
- Glass, aluminum and other metals can continuously be recycled
- Paper and cardboard can be recycled 5 to 7 times
- Most plastic can only be recycled 1 to 2 times
You’ll notice that plastic recycling is the least effective, and much of the plastic that we use eventually becomes waste. As waste, plastic remains a problematic material because of its immensely strong molecular polymer bonds.
In the ocean, plastic breaks down into microplastic fragments. These either float or sink depending on their density. Floating in the water, the fragments attract toxins, and they can easily be digested from sea creatures a small as a plankton to as large as a whale.
The other problem is that they are persistent in the environment, never breaking down fully. As a result, we breathe and eat microplastics, without fully knowing the health consequences. That’s why, beyond recycling, we should consider reducing our plastic use as much as possible.
The recycling problem in America
America’s recycling problem doesn’t just stem from China’s National Sword policy. In fact, the policy just helped us hold up a mirror to some of the internal issues we face.
Key recycling facts that might surprise you
We have a dismal plastic recycling rate. Only nine percent of all the plastic that has ever been produced on earth has been recycled. Perhaps we should reconsider recycling plastic and focus on other sustainable solutions like banning plastic, in line with the European Union, or charging manufacturers that produce it, as Canada has opted to do.
Mostly number 1 and number 2 plastics get recycled. PET bottles, used for water and soda bottles have a better chance of an afterlife than most other plastics, as do milk cartons and laundry detergent bottles made of HDPE. The rest of all plastic (numbers 3 through 7) gets put into bales called “mixed plastic.” Mixed plastic typically gets incinerated or sent to landfills.
One of our problems is contamination. Food grime, grease and puncture wounds can transform a recyclable item into waste. Unfortunately, most recycling systems in the U.S. rely on a single-stream system in which all items are tossed in the same blue bin.
This leads to two main problems. It leads to contamination, in which one soiled container can coat the rest of the contents with liquid, which renders it unrecyclable. Moreover, when we put items that aren’t actually recyclable in the bin, user error creates a sorting riddle for workers at the recycling facility. Plastic bags, for instance, can jam up a machine.
Recycling programs across America have ended or downsized. China only accepts single-material bales with a contamination level of 0.5 percent, a nearly impossible standard to meet. And while recyclers tried to find other importing countries, many countries in Southeast Asia have now restricted their waste imports, too. The US transferred some of its shipments elsewhere, but without a sizable market, it has had to absorb the waste at home.
Because of this, some recycling programs have gone bankrupt, whereas they used to receive substantial funding from PET sales. Programs have also closed. Others have greatly restricted what they’ll accept, while many cities have turned to incineration and landfilling to handle the excess recycling material that’s piling up.
This is especially true for the “mixed plastic” category. The amount of excess is roughly 19,000 shipping containers of plastic recycling per month, an amount that, according to the Guardian, would fill 250 Olympic swimming pools.
What America can do to reduce, reuse and recycle better
To make improvements, it helps to first consider an ideal system.
How effective recycling works
Effective recycling starts with recyclable materials. When manufacturers use materials that can easily get recycled, they improve the waste stream at the design phase.
We already know that plastic numbers 3 through 7 are not ideally suited for our waste stream because they can’t easily be recycled. Therefore, banning or taxing these materials could help the waste stream.
Next, effective recycling depends on proper disposal. This means consumers understand the problems associated with contamination and incorrectly sorted materials. They must also buy in to the recycling system enough to participate fully. If consumers wash, collect and sort their recyclable materials in line with specific high standards, the supply of recyclable materials remains constant, reliable and high quality.
Sorting systems can also achieve better results with multiple bins, so that paper and bottles that contained food, liquid or oil don’t cause cross-contamination.
Municipalities or companies responsible for collecting the materials should have proper equipment and resources. When they deliver the material to be sorted, the sorting methods should ensure low contamination rates. This part obviously requires ample investment on the part of cities.
Finally, recycling sorting facilities should have strong connections to buyers of scrap material, so that they can easily connect with the manufacturing plants that will generate new products from the material. Ensuring manufacturers that a consistent supply of high quality material is vital to effective recycling.
What is America doing to improve recycling?
Given the sense of urgency brought by the policy changes in China, America is already starting to adapt towards a more effective recycling model. The following hopeful changes already show America’s interest in making improvements to recycling:
- Large brands like Coca-cola and Walmart have committed to including a percentage of recycled content in their packaging by 2025.
- Seattle and San Francisco have been able to achieve China’s high contamination standard by separating the clean material and shipping recycling bales with very low contamination.
- An initiative to provide funding to standardize America’s recycling labels has been introduced by Representative Betty McCollum. The funding supports the non-profit organization Recycle Across America in developing and implementing the use of standardized labels to solve the recycling problem “at the bin” and prevent contamination.
- Major plastic manufacturers have invested $1 billion into plastic recycling development. Their pledge has been used to create a recycling incubator called Circulate Capital, which will specifically help Southeast Asian countries improve their recycling capabilities, divert waste from rivers that carry plastic waste to oceans, improve waste management in urban centers, and collect data.
On the regulatory front, California lawmakers have considered banning single-use plastic and setting targets requiring manufacturers to make recyclable or compostable products by 2030.
What other recycling opportunities could we explore?
While the above list is a good start, there’s still more that can be done. In contrast with many other countries, America has remained pretty hands off in terms of nationwide bans or regulatory measures for manufacturing. Instead, changes like these most often happen at the state level. However, some people feel that without such large brushstrokes, America won’t make a strong enough impact.
Other countries have opted to challenge the policies of manufacturers, however. For instance, in Canada, manufacturers are required to pay to recycle their products and packaging, which discourages them from using hard-to-recycle materials. Meanwhile, the European Union recently took action to cut plastic waste by banning a variety of single-use plastic items and requiring recycled content in plastic bottles.
Opportunity also lies in recycling equipment investments, and public awareness campaigns. Finally, thinking holistically in order to “reduce, reuse and recycle” at once could improve the problem of waste through a variety of compatible strategies.
What other ways can we solve waste besides recycling?
Beyond recycling, we can also turn to the other ‘Rs’ of sustainability, which have multiplied over time. In these scenarios, we’ll focus on plastic, because it is the most problematic material out there. And because we’re focusing on plastic, we’ll also look closely at packaging, because that’s what roughly a third of all plastic is used for.
Reuse. Some argue that plastic should be reserved for long-term use. Yet, it’s typically designed for packaging, which can have a useful life as short as a few minutes. Ideally, our plastic containers or objects would be designed for repeated reuse.
Reduce. Others suggest that we should cut out plastic from our lives as much as possible. This strategy has inspired the many legally regulated plastic bans around the world.
Rethink. People with an optimism for inventing a solution to plastic suggest we should find technological fix to continuously recycle plastic, or keep it out of the ocean with the help of machines. While such optimism sounds good on paper, few of the solutions aimed at inventive solutions have achieved scalability on par with the problem. So far, they won’t make a big impact overall.
Redesign. Others say we should make plastic manufacturers pay for their plastic, so that they will redesign packaging to follow more sustainable principles. Packaging should ideally be continuously recyclable, reusable or just minimal so has a smaller impact.
Refuse. Alongside this emphasis on redesign, some people have opted to take matters in their own hands by refusing to buy products with wasteful packaging designs.
Return. Again, putting the spotlight on the manufacturer, we could consider regulations that would require the producers of goods to receive returned products to pay for their disposal at the end of a product’s life.
Repair. If we make manufacturers responsible for the full lifespan of their products, they might be more willing to design products that could be easily repaired.
These are just some of the many ways that we could minimize our ecological footprint in our consumption and production habits. All of these alternatives have benefits similar to those brought by recycling.