Recycling is a Complex Issue

Recycling is not as straightforward as it seems, just because an item has a recyclable symbol on it does not mean that it can be or actually is recycled.  Sometimes while you think you’re doing your part to help the world and recycle, that item is just being tossed in the trash at the sorting facility.  Things that are regularly thrown out at the sorting facility are takeout containers, pizza boxes, wet paper, paper that is too brightly or darkly dyed, coated cardboards or papers and many types of plastics.  Plastics labeled #3-#7 have been found to be incredibly hard to breakdown so most of the time we just throw it away once it reaches the sorting facility.  Colored items (paper/cardboard/plastics) are all tricky because certain colors act like that red sock in the white load and dye the whole load during recycling, so they are usually tossed out.  Thin film-like plastics, and grocery bag plastics are nearly impossible to recycle. Items that are contaminated with food waste/particles are not recyclable and are thrown in trash.   Make sure you’re cleaning out your containers, the food contamination policies can be extreme, if one item has food waste on it some facilities consider the whole load contaminated and dump it. Across the US there is no universal recycling policy, each state, county and even city has different practices, regulations and contamination limits. This lack of consistency means that the public can’t even be properly educated on what is recyclable or not because each place is different.  It’s estimated that only about 33% of what we recycle actually gets recycled.

Plastics are Dangerous

In 2011 the US biggest export to China was our plastic trash to be broken down. Why were we sending our plastic trash to China? Because the US makes way too much plastic to keep up with.  In 2014 we produced over 311 tons of plastic, because virgin plastic is so much cheaper to produce, less than 10% of the plastic produced in 2014 was made from recycled materials.  Each time plastic is melted down and recycled it degrades, make it unusable after a couple of times being recycled, glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely with little degradation. Plastics are not designed to be easily broken down, some types of plastic can take thousands of years without some type of assistance along the way. Over 8 million tons of plastics enter the ocean each year, either through direct dumping (individuals/countries dumping their plastic waste right into waterways).  Once in the ocean the plastic is broken down by the waves, sand, and sun eventually turning into microparticles that will never fully biodegrade.   These pieces have created a “plastic smog” throughout the ocean, it’s estimated that there are over 5.25 BILLION microparticles floating in the ocean, about 270, 000 TONS of plastic waste.  This doesn’t just affect the wildlife, it affects the human population.  These microparticles can be magnets for something else: harmful bacteria and organic pollutants like pesticides that can make us sick. Fish eat the microparticles, we eat the fish (if they’re not totally filled with plastic) and we get the harmful bacteria.   Some populations drink from waterways that connect to the ocean, microparticles have flowed into their drinking water.  Plastics in our oceans and microparticles aren’t just a crisis for wildlife, they’re a problem for human health and safety. 

What Can You Do?

China has now imposed much stricter restrictions on what they will accept as recyclable from other countries, they no longer wanted to deal with our waste.  The majority of items they were receiving were contaminated and ended up just being thrown out.  This caused an environmental crisis for China so they will now only accept items with much lower contamination rates, meaning we now throw out a lot more recyclables than we did before.  Don’t let this dissuade you from recycling, not recycling is still much worse than having some of your nonrecyclable items thrown out.   Much of our paper is recycled, and glass and metal are recycled indefinitely.  Our recycling practices are improving every day, so meticulous sorting becomes less of an issue.  Make sure you know what isn’t a recyclable item from the start so you don’t risk contamination with your other items: Food waste, paper towel/napkins, coated cardboards, food containers (unless thoroughly cleaned out), Styrofoam, and aerosol cans are just some of the items that cannot be recycled.   Learn about your cities recycling process, and the guidelines they’ve got for what can and cannot be recycled, you can usually find this info by searching for your cities waste management.  Become a smart consumer, buy items that are in containers that can be recycled longer, glass and metals, lighter color plastics or papers/cardboards.  Many companies out there now offer your everyday items in recyclable containers, and even offer to do the recycling for you! Support companies or programs that are doing cleanup efforts, whether its by donating time or effort we can all do our little part to help the earth.

Read More:

National Geographic: 5 Recycling Myths Busted:

Huffington Post: The Dirty Truth Is Your Recycling May Actually Go to Landfills:

Insider: Things That Don’t Belong In Recycling:

Mother Nature Network: 23 Things that Aren’t Recyclable:

Copyright © 2019 Caitlin McNeese