June 06 2022
This is part of our ongoing series, called DTL (that stands for Down to Learn), where we take deep dives into the odd, nuanced and mysterious world of sustainability. Each article in our series should give you a good icebreaker for your next Zoom, or perhaps even inspire you. This piece was penned by contributor Jacqueline Parisi.
Recyclable is recyclable is recyclable, right? If only it was that simple! Unfortunately, the recycling system in the US is far from perfect and doesn’t work *nearly* as seamlessly as you’d think. Below, we dive into the controversial history and set the record straight on what materials are most and least likely to get a second life.
The history of recycling in the US
In order to talk about recycling in the US, you actually have to talk about China. Because up until 2018, that’s where we were sending all our plastic, paper, and metals — upwards of 16 million tons per year, to be exact. However, 30% of those materials were never recycled at all due to contamination by non-recyclable material (more on that below), which led between 1.3 and 3.5 million metric tons of plastic to find a home in China’s oceans.
In response, the Chinese government instituted a ban on the import of plastics that did not meet their new, stricter purity standards, causing the US to look elsewhere. For a brief period, we were sending our waste to Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam before they too signed a treaty restricting the export of plastic waste that was often difficult or impossible to recycle due to contamination and mixing.
“We were finding that there was waste from the US that was just piled up in villages throughout these countries that had once been primarily agricultural communities,” said Claire Arkin, a spokeswoman for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). They had “turned into dumpsites over the course of a year.”
From there, we turned to developing countries such as Senegal, Kenya, Laos, Ethiopia, Ghana, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. And we weren’t alone. Many European nations, as well as Australia, have followed suit by exporting waste to countries that do not have adequate infrastructure to process the waste, nor the capital to reject it. Without government oversight, individuals are left to bear the burden of the seemingly never-ending stream of plastic waste — causing stark human rights and child labor violations, not to mention environmental devastation.
While the images of plastic debris covering waterways and clogging roads are difficult to process, what’s perhaps more disturbing is the very real fact that plastics do not biodegrade, meaning the effects of remnant shards in animal feed, water, soil, and air will be felt for decades, even centuries, to come.
Regardless of the country we ship our waste to, the facts remained grim. Researchers cite 20-70% as the amount of plastic intended for overseas recycling that’s unusable and, thus, discarded.
The state of US recycling today
In 1960, Americans generated an average of 2.68 pounds of garbage per day. By 1980, that number had grown to 3.66 pounds and, by 2018, it had reached 4.9. However, when the market for international recycling dried up, the US was left in a precarious position. Because we had, for so many years, shipped recyclable waste elsewhere, the infrastructure for a domestic, federally-funded and operated program was never developed. Today, decisions about whether and what to recycle are left entirely in the hands of local municipalities, some of which opt for landfills instead because they’re cheaper.
Both recycling and landfilling require a pickup and transfer service, so the cost there is equivalent. However, recyclables must then be appropriately sorted and, if necessary, cleaned before repurposing. That’s where the extra cost comes into play. In fact, back in 2002, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg placed an 18-month moratorium on glass and plastic recycling after finding that the service cost twice as much as disposal. The economics, combined with the fact that low demand for recyclable materials was causing it to end up in landfills anyway, convinced Bloomberg that the projected $57 million dollar savings was worth a shot. The problem with this model is that it was decidedly short-term.
Investing in efficient recycling programs reduces the long-term need to construct new landfills, in addition to reducing energy that would otherwise be spent processing raw materials into products from scratch.
What’s the deal with plastic then? Is it recyclable or not?
According to estimates, only 8% of plastic that is intended to be recycled actually is, with six times more plastic incinerated than recycled — a staggering statistic when you consider that burning plastic creates harmful dioxins (aka highly toxic compounds). And while most modern incinerators are equipped with technology to capture these compounds before they’re released into the environment, concern still remains around the CO2 emitted in the process. According to Eunomia, an independent sustainability consulting company, incineration is second only to coal-powered electricity in its CO2 emissions.
...which begs the question...why are we incinerating instead of recycling? It all boils down to contamination.
Just last year, NPR and PBS Frontline released results of an investigation that helped explain why. TL;DR...the nation’s largest oil and gas companies are the ones behind the production of plastic. They have known as far back as the 1970s that most plastic is not actually recyclable, and if it is, it’s difficult to sort properly. However, in order to sell more plastic, they had to sell the American people on the idea that it was, in fact, sustainable. Enter, advertisements. Starting in the 1990s, Americans were bombarded with commercials promoting the idea that plastic is anything but trash. It’s full of potential...it’s recyclable!
In reality, only certain PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastic bottles are truly recyclable — the former is used to make hard plastic containers and the latter is used for milk jugs and shopping bags — but they MUST be sorted appropriately. And because plastic significantly degrades, it cannot be reused more than once or twice.
Below are common plastic household items that are not (we repeat, NOT) recyclable:
- Plastic bags
- Plastic straws
- Chip bags
- Coffee cups
- Coffee Pods
Recycling by material...what DOES get a second life?
By weight, steel is North America’s most recycled item (more than aluminum, paper, glass, and plastic combined). It’s obtained from things like cans, cars, appliances, and construction material.
Aluminum is one of the best items to recycle since it can be reprocessed an infinite amount of times without degrading. Plus, recycling saves 95% of the energy that would otherwise go towards generating new aluminum. For the most part, it’s found in kitchen items (e.g., foil and baking tins), spray cans, and curtain rods.
As of 2017, 66% of clean, post-consumer paper was reduced to its cellulose fibers and recycled (which can happen an average of 5-7 times). The most recyclable paper materials are magazines, newspapers, and office printer paper — but not paper towels and napkins (you want to avoid recycling those since they’re often contaminated with food waste, oil, or grease).
Cardboard items such as cereal and shoeboxes, as well as paper towel and toilet paper tubes, are primed for a second life due to their wood fibers. The big exception here is pizza boxes which, if stained with grease and oil, should not be recycled.
Glass is infinitely recyclable and 33% more energy-efficient than creating it from scratch. In its second life, it’s often used for containers and fiberglass insulation.
There are, however, a few key exceptions: glass from mirrors cannot be recycled, nor can pyrex (which is designed to sustain high temperatures and won’t melt down correctly) and drinking glasses (which are designed to sustain both hot and cold temperatures and, like pyrex, don’t melt down well).