Do you ever want to scream at the recycling bin, "Why is this so hard?!" You're not alone. When it comes to trash, the process is pretty cut and dry. But, recycling poses many intimidating issues in terms of time, energy, and potential pitfalls along the way. We are all on board with saving the planet, so let's talk about why recycling today is so complicated and what you can do to make it easier on yourself.
How Does Recycling Work?
First, there is no federal law that mandates recycling. This means that each state and even city can create its own recycling rules.
As of now, most places in the US use a single-stream system, meaning that each household tosses all of their recyclables into one bin and sets it on the curb for pickup. When the truck dutifully arrives, it compacts the contents of your bin into their even bigger bin and delivers the lot to a materials recovery facility, or a MRF (pronounced, "murf"). From here, a combination of trained employees and machines sort all materials, starting with what’s not actually recyclable.
Items like garden hoses and plastic bags are considered contaminants and can damage machinery, so they are redirected to either a landfill or incinerator. Ideally, a mixture of glass, metal, plastic, and paper products are left, which a series of specialized machines will separate, aggregate, and then sell to interested buyers. These buyers are typically companies who can save money by using recycled, instead of raw, materials.
Why Is Recycling So Hard?
Recycling is a complex process and with the way the system is currently set up, it usually isn’t completely successful.
First and probably most relevant are all the different types of plastic. Despite the plastic industry's positive messaging around recycling, many plastics either can’t be recycled or can only be recycled 2-3 times. What’s more, there are over seven different types of plastic and each needs to be recycled using different methods. Currently, there’s little legislation to simplify the issue, so the majority of the responsibility is left to the consumer.
There’s also glass, metal, and paper which should be cleaned, separated, and kept dry (paper isn’t recyclable once it’s wet, for example). The reasoning behind this tedium is that MRFs actually have a very difficult time handling dirty and mixed materials, even if they're recyclable. In fact, the US recycling system is currently only successfully recycling about 30 percent of the materials they're given.
Apart from the literal mechanics of recycling, there’s another wrench in this situation. We briefly mentioned before that there’s no federal mandate on recycling, which means standards vary city to city. For example, let’s say you move cities but remain within your state. It would be natural to assume you could continue your recycling habits but in reality, one city may recycle glass and the other doesn't. So here again, the consumer is left with the responsibility to stay current on possible regulation changes within their city, as well as when they move or travel.
Plain and simple, recycling is quite confusing. With unclear guidelines from both government and businesses, we are left questioning, "Do we put this in the paper bin, the plastics bin, or the trash?" On top of that, things like batteries and electronics are no easy feat to salvage. Between lack of knowledge (no, that greasy pizza box can't be recycled), access to programs. (low-income and rural communities are limited in resources), and overall desire to purchase environmentally-friendly products, it sure isn't easy being green.
Quick Tips for Recycling Better
Have we bummed you out? Well, once we all understand the issues and process better, we can make moves towards recycling success. Below are actionable steps, tips, and resources you can use to make it all easier.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
First, treat this phrase as a hierarchy. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. If you can use it again, do so. You’ll end up with far less waste to worry about, effectively nipping the issue in the bud.
Don’t Be a Wish-Cycler
Despite our best intentions, wish-cycling is when a eco-conscious consumer places questionable items in the recycling bin, hoping it's right. Know what you can recycle and know what you can’t. Items smaller than a credit card are prone to falling through sorting grates, jamming the machinery at a MRF. Textiles and plastic bags create a similar effect. Batteries, electronics, aerosol cans, and certain types of plastic should not be thrown in your recyclables bin. Instead, take them to an appropriate drop-off location (more on that in the resources section).
Buying beverages often means the consumer incurs a bottle deposit fee. Instead of ignoring these fees, take your empty beverage bottles back to the store. You’ll not only receive a refund, but it stands a better chance of being recycled properly. This includes plastic and glass bottles as well as aluminum cans. Currently, there are only 10 states with bottle deposit regulations: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.
Involve the Family
Don’t shoulder all of the responsibility within your family or household. Instead, use it as an opportunity to involve and educate your loved ones! You may be surprised how excited the kids are to make a recycling game plan.
When going to the grocery store, bring reusable bags. But if you absolutely need to use plastic bags, ask if the grocery store accepts them upon return. Many do!
The Poke Test
If you can push your finger through the plastic, it's not recyclable. Think sandwich baggies, ziploc bags, plastic wrap, and grocery bags. Wash and reuse these bags or see if you can bring them to your local store to recycle.
Cleaning Done Right
Get savvy by using certain techniques to clean your recyclables. For example, all of those sticky labels on your cans and bottles? Let them soak in water until their glue loosens. Use a box cutter in order to break down recyclable cartons and clean them properly.
Learn to compost. Of course, this doesn’t apply to glass, metal, and plastic, but it can greatly help with paper. Plain, uncoated cardboard, egg cartons (non-Styrofoam), and even greasy pizza boxes are compostable. What’s more, you can even compost paper that’s been written on, provided that a vegetable or soy-based ink was used.
What The Numbers Mean on Your Plastics
- 1 (PET or PETE): Mostly used for food and drink packaging and can be recycled.
- 2 (HDPE or PE-HD): A sturdy type of plastic, high density polyethylene, often used for shampoos, pill bottles, and the like. It can be recycled.
- 3 (V or PVC): PVC or polyvinyl chloride is used in cling wrap, loose-leaf binders, and toys. Considered the most hazardous plastic and recycling programs rarely accept them.
- 4 (LDPE or PE-LD): One of the most widely used plastics, low density polyethylene, is found in bags, inner coatings on coffee cups and paper milk cartons, as well as squeezable bottles. It is not readily recycled.
- 5 (PP): Polypropylene is a sturdy-ish plastic used in car parts, diapers, sanitary pads, and food containers. It is also not recyclable.
- 6 (PS): Also known as Styrofoam, polystyrene is used in takeout food containers, bike helmets, and packaging. It is rarely able to be recycled and is toxic when exposed to heat.
- 7 (Other): Any other plastic, the most common being polycarbonate (PC). Toxic BPA is related to PC and sadly, both are widely used. Plastics that fit into this category are very rarely recycled and should be avoided.
Jane Andrade, J. S. K. F. (2020). State and Federal Efforts to Revitalize Recycling. ncsl.org. Accessed September 1, 2021.
Bell, S. (2019). What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)? RoadRunner Recycling. Accessed September 1, 2021.
Sedaghat, L. (2018, April 13). 7 things you didn't know about plastic (and Recycling). National Geographic Society Newsroom. Accessed September 1, 2021.
(2018). National Overview: Facts and Figures About Materials Waste and Recycling. EPA. Accessed September 1, 2021.