The Complex Reality About Recycling in America

Repurposing Our Waste Instead of Disposing It Will Not End Our Dependency on Disposable Goods. But it Helps.

Graphic image of the Earth wrapped in recycling logo

The simple act of disposing of an item into the blue bin marked with a recycling sign is enough to make some folks feel good, like we have done our part to help reduce landfill waste and pollution. Unfortunately, many people do not realize there is a very dirty side to recycling.

A number of recent reports have cast doubt on the idea of recycling. Recycling has been called garbage, a myth, and a system beyond repair as we are learning that the recyclables picked up at our curbs are actually being shipped overseas and dumped, are leaching toxic chemicals and microplastics.

Recycling is being used by Big Oil to mislead consumers about the environmental problems with petroleum-based plastics and it has packaging companies using the promise of recyclability to flood the planet with disposable and often toxic plastic trash. The consequences are now clear in the trash, in our rivers and oceans and in the microplastics that invades our bodies.

It is so bad that in response, the plastic industry is creating rebuttal campaigns referred to as “Recycling is Real.” While recycling has become inseparable from corporate greenwashing, society should not be so quick to cast it aside. In the short term, it might be the best option we have against the growing plastic waste crisis.

One of the most fundamental problems with recycling is that we are not sure how much of it actually happens, as it seems there is much emphasis placed on the material that arrives rather than what comes out. What we do know is the number of products being recycled is much less than we assumed.

Let us say you throw a milk container in the recycling, place the bin out on collection day and forget about it. Depending on where you are in the United States, that carton is taken to a place to be sorted, graded and baled up with other cartons and shipped off to a recycling facility. Depending on the material and where you live, it might occur abroad in Canada, Mexico, India or Malaysia.


The reality is a different matter. America’s national recycling rate is only 32% and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, two of the most consumed plastics in America are P.E.T. (used in beverage bottles) and H.D.P.E. (used in milk jugs and other items) which are recycled at a rate of only about 30%. Other plastics like films, sometimes called No.4 plastics, are not widely accepted in curbside collections. The E.P.A. estimates that just 2.7 percent of polypropylene, known as No.5, used to make furniture and cleaning bottles was reprocessed. When the numbers are crunched, only 10 percent of plastic in the United States is recycled according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.


Workers loading recycling truck

Just because recycling in the United States needs improvement does not mean it cannot be done well. In fact, scientific research has repeatedly found that in many cases, recycling waste materials has significant environmental benefits as it results in a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. When dealing with aluminum, scrap metals and textiles, the savings are substantial.


Let's compare recycling with the alternative, which is making the same products from raw materials or from scratch. Recycling steel saves over 70% of the energy used to produce new steel. It also saves water consumption by 40%. Recycled aluminum requires only about 5% of the energy and saves almost nine tons of bauxite from being hauled out from mines. Anti-plastic diehards will most likely agree that recycling plastics like P.E.T. is better for the environment than burning it - a likely scenario if recycling was to be abandoned completely.


There are also significant economic benefits to recycling. Recycling creates as many as fifty jobs for every facility sending waste to landfills. In fact, the E.P.A. estimates that recycling and reuse accounted for 681,000 jobs in America alone.

Before the country abandons recycling, we need to first try to fix it. Companies need to consider phasing out products that cannot be recycled and designing more products that are easier to recycle and reuse rather than leaving sustainability to their marketing departments. Lawmakers can also help by passing new laws that help increase recycling rates which will drive investment into the sector. 

Governments can also ban or restrict problematic plastics to reduce the number of needless plastics from everyday lives, for instance in food packaging. They can offer incentives such as U.S.G.B.C. LEED building/facility credits. Also needed is clearer and more concise labeling of what is and is not actually recyclable and transparency around verified recycling rates.

Greater safety regulations are needed to reduce toxic chemical contents and microplastic pollution caused by the recycling process. And consumers can do their bit by buying sustainablerecycled or biodegradable products with socially responsible textiles, as well as purchasing less and reusing more.

For the future of the planet and our own health, we should be trying to move away from our disposable excesses. Sure, recycling is broken but abandoning it too soon risks going back to the system of decades past in which we dumped and dumped more and burned our garbage without any real care. Do that, and like the recycling symbol itself, we will be going around in circles.

This website offers products that are a positive step towards reducing our landfill legacy. Please feel free to explore our product offerings, or contact MDS  Associates for more information or samples.

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