What Really Happens To Our Recyclables? - Public Goods Blog

What Really Happens To Our Recyclables?

If you’re like me, you make a deliberate effort to recycle. But more often than not, you mess up.

pile of plastic containers

You throw a recyclable take-out container in the trash or fold a greasy pizza box (non-recyclable) into the bin with your paper and plastics.

Currently my roommates and I keep our recyclables in plastic bags (yikes) because a weird mildew developed in the recycling bin I’d bought. At the same time, I’ve heard rumors like, “Big city landlords don’t make an effort to recycle, so if you’re in a large building, it’s not even worth it.”

That rhetoric begs the question, it is even worthwhile to recycle? What’s really happening to our recycled waste?

Unlike non-recyclable waste, recycling is an industry that makes a profit from selling their product (your broken down or bundled recyclables) to other industries. This business model means recycling plants want to be able to collect as much reusable waste as possible.

Unfortunately 25% of what is put into recycling bins isn’t actually recyclable. Anything dirty — those grease-soaked pizza boxes, coffee-laden cups, bottles clogged with shampoo — can’t be recycled. They’re sorted out of the recycling and taken to a landfill. Likewise, plastic bags — the number one cause of plant equipment jams — aren’t recyclable, and anything in them or wrapped around them will be thrown away.

Soiled products, medical waste, batteries and more can contaminate an entire batch of recyclables. Maybe this is where that rumor I heard about landlords was started. If a few people or businesses in the building recycle the wrong way, the building’s recycling could become unusable for the plant. Perhaps there are some building managers who believe it’s not worth the trouble.

Much of the U.S.’s sorted recyclables were, until recently, sold and shipped to factories in China. In January 2018, however, China implemented the National Sword policy, banning 24 categories of scrap plastic and paper from being imported. Other products, such as scrap metal, must have only 0.5% contamination from outside sources, including food. This low level of contamination is often too difficult for plants in the U.S. to meet.

By 2020 all foreign solid waste will be banned from entering China. Recycling plants have been so reliant on the Chinese industry as their client, it’s estimated that approximately 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030. Prior to this year, the U.S. alone sent 66 million tons of solid waste each year to China. The restriction means the bulk of that 66 million tons of waste now has nowhere to go.

Much of U.S. waste product is being stored in hopes that a new market will open up in the near future. However, so much is being stockpiled that a lot of it needs to be shipped out of the plants to — you guessed it — landfills.

Roughly 60% of what ends up in the landfill every year is actually recyclable. As much as 79% of plastics end up being thrown out. Obviously I’m not the only one who’s messing up their recycling.

It’s best to make an effort to keep our plastics and papers products free from contamination, and to recycle as consistently as we can. New research revealed that our oceans have been retaining 60% more heat than climate scientists originally thought, accelerating global warming levels dramatically. The recycling process, despite the inconveniences and hard realities that accompany it, is crucial if we’re going to save our planet.

All right, I’m off to find a new recycling bin or maybe switch to paper bags.

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Comments (1)

  • I’m disappointed that in this article you do not mention trying to stay away from single use plastics all together, since recycling is not longer an effective method for dealing with plastic waste. Simple things like taking your trustable water bottle with you, rather than buying water in plastic bottles, asking take out restaurants to skip the plastic cutlery, and carrying your own (I just rehash some old plastic silverware and bring that with me), buying dish washer and laundry detergent in cardboard boxes instead of plastic bottle or tubs. There are several companies now making refills for most household products that are in compostable milk carton type containers. Etc. we need to get smart as consumers what we buy as to not contribute to the making and (not not able to recycle) single use plastics. Recycling isn’t working anymore.

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