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The Recycling Issue In The U.S.

By: Hannah McCall

Recycling is defined as the collection, breakdown and reuse of items that are thrown away in order to turn them into new products. 

In America, in 1980, 15 million tons of waste was recycled. That number rose in 2012 to 87 million tons, accounting for 34.5% of all U.S. waste.

That might sound like a win and insinuate that America is on the right track when it comes to recycling. However, the U.S. has a glaring recycling issue that needs to be addressed. 

The problem we face in this country when it comes to our recycling process is that it isn’t exactly a black and white issue. 

What are the top issues we face when it comes to recycling in the U.S.? 

Recycling is, to put it simply, an industry and process that is largely controlled by the market and as we know, markets are dependent on demand. Demand is subject to the rollercoaster of the need that does or does not exist for it. To put it plainly, if there is no demand for recycled material to be used in the production of new items then those recycled materials will be thrown away. Without demand, the cost of recycling is too high and unprofitable for recycling companies, which has led many recycling centers to close their doors. 

China has changed what they allow to enter their country

Basically, we lost our biggest partner. For over 30 years, China stood as the world’s main importer for recycling and waste companies. 31% of the scraps from the U.S. went over to China, where they sorted and processed our materials. However, when China made a shift to ban plastics from entering their country, it became a struggle for recycling companies to sustain the sorting demand and find a market for materials such as paper, cardboard and plastic. 

As a result, you can assume that our landfills are increasing while our recycling capabilities are decreasing. 

People are confused about what and how to recycle

The process of recycling in the U.S. begins when people choose to place things in the recycling bin. Next, it is picked up for processing, which includes being sorted, cleaned and prepped to be transported. Lastly, it is transported to facilities responsible for the remanufacturing of the recycled materials into new products.

But wait, should there be another step? Way at the beginning? 15-25% of items being put in the recycling bin can’t even be properly recycled due to the single stream infrastructure that our recycling system has. Further, the lack of “how” to recycle is giving the industry a one-two punch and thus influencing the closing of recycling centers.

62% of Americans worry that their knowledge about recycling is not adequate enough to allow them to properly recycle. A large majority also find it difficult to know how to choose environmentally friendly or green products in an attempt to reduce their use of items that normally ends up in the trash. 

The top three reasons people in the U.S. don’t recycle is:

  1. It’s not convenient 
  2. They don’t have extra bins or space to do so
  3. They don’t have the time it takes to learn and properly separate items

However, 61% of Americans are concerned about the amount of waste that ends up in our oceans. In addition, 86% believe that their day-to-day actions have a direct impact on the health of the environment and think that knowledge is important. 

We have to do better.

So why should we care about recycling?

When you recycle, the following things happen: 

  • Pollution is reduced. This is due to less need for raw materials.
  • Landfills don’t fill up as aggressively. When less is being thrown in the trash and recycled for alternative use, there is no need for large landfill drops-offs or expansions.
  • Reduction in your local taxes. When there is less garbage to haul out of town, there is a slightly less cost requirement at the hands of your state and county.
  • Saves energy. When less items are being made from scratch, the energy required for production is smaller. 
  • The trees and water are conserved. 

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Environmental Protection Agency have goals in place that are meant to protect Americans from things like toxins getting into their water from waste disposal, and goals to protect and preserve our natural resources. Because there are no laws surrounding recycling on a national level, state and local governments are left with the responsibility to place measures around recycling on a case-by-case basis. A large majority of recycling companies are privately owned and they then create partnerships with the local government. 

What can we do to improve recycling in the U.S.? 

  • Use decorative boxes instead of gift-wrap. 
  • Choose to use reusable bags and totes.
  • Seek out battery recycle stations in stores or at community collection drops.
  • Pay attention to symbols on plastic.
  • Use a stainless steel reusable water bottle, instead of plastic.
  • Ask your recycling company if glass needs to be sorted. Take it a step further and choose everyday products packaged in glass. 
  • Switch to a shampoo bar and reduce the plastic in your personal care products. 
  • Reduce waste by choosing reusable products for around your house. 

It’s up to us to help improve the recycling infrastructure in the U.S. We can start by voting with our dollars and learning how to properly recycle approved items. 

Shop BLK + GRN green packaging products, using eco-friendly packaging without any plastic, to help improve the health of the environment.

What have you done to improve recycling in the U.S.? Tell us in the comments below.

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