Why Isn’t It Working? Deficiencies in U.S. Recycling

Published January 16, 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the U.S. could recycle or compost three quarters of its waste but, at present, we’re only up to 34%. Granted, this is a huge improvement from just 6% in 1960, but when you compare it to Germany – 67.6%, Austria – 63%, Belgium – 58% you can clearly see there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The United States is currently not even in the top 10 countries when it comes to recycling. After the China ban from 2018 it’s no longer possible to ship so much of our plastic waste there. The main issue that led to the ban was that American plastic waste was poorly sorted, most of it was contaminated with food and dirt which meant it would just end up in China’s landfills.

According to an analysis by The Guardian, the U.S. is still sending over 1 million tons of plastic waste to developing countries that are already drowning in it themselves. This is because a large portion of the companies importing the waste simply saw an opportunity for financial gain and built illegal factories that don’t actually have adequate equipment.

In Malaysia, for example, the plastic that can’t be recycled by these factories is simply burnt or it ends up in landfills. The process of burning the waste is not exactly eco-friendly, since it releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Denmark has also been burning its waste for decades to generate energy used primarily for heating, but with increasing pressure form the European Union, rates of recycling have increased considerably. If you want to find out more about how Danish businesses handle their waste you can click here.

Americans Don’t Know How to Recycle
It seems that Americans are quite enthusiastic about recycling, but unfortunately this doesn’t translate to know-how – clearly illustrated by the large proportion of contaminated plastic waste received by China.

One problem is plastic bags. Technically they are made out of plastic and could be recycled but when they’re mixed with the other waste, such as plastic bottles, they end up jamming the equipment in recycling facilities, halting the process for hours at a time. A better way to dispose of them is to take them back to the supermarket where they’re collected in
designated bins and sent to companies that specialize in recycling plastic bags.

Regarding bottles, nowadays you don’t have to remove the lids but you should empty any remaining contents such as soda or juice and rinse before putting them in the recycling bin. Depending on the state you live in, it’s also possible to return them and get 5 to 15¢ per bottle.

On the other hand, the issue with plastic bags doesn’t come solely from consumers, but rather from the retail stores themselves. In Europe, shoppers are usually charged for bags regardless of what they buy, while in the U.S. most grocery stores have baggers who will separate items into different bags by category. The shopper will feel it’s impolite to interfere
and they just let them do their jobs but this results in higher rates of waste.

Another issue is that we don’t have a clear sorting system like Germany has. Our bins are not as accessible or intuitively labeled as theirs. We don’t have as many pick-up locations and there’s not as much financial incentive as for German consumers.

C&D Waste Mismanagement
C&D stands for construction and demolition so the term refers to the waste resulting from large projects such as roads or bridges but also from any renovation and repair projects in private homes.

It’s estimated that C&D waste makes up between 15% and 20% of total solid waste and, as it happens, landfills which accept it have a limited capacity and many are closing. Austria and Germany, in contrast, have set up C&D waste management systems for decades. They have a network of small and mid-sized companies that recover this waste and
send it for recycling. They also have devised a strong legal framework, quality norms, they enforce these regulations efficiently and there’s effective collaboration between policymakers and industries.

In the United States, only concrete and steel have a recovery rate of about 50%, while for other materials such as wood, drywall, brick and plastics the rate is negligible. Nearly all building materials could be recycled so it’s important that we develop our own legal framework and infrastructure to increase these rates.

The good news is that rates are rising because of the higher cost of landfilling, stricter regulations and a growing concern for environmental issues. The National Demolition Association (NDA) recommends that the federal government draft
guidelines for each material, promote technological innovation to make better quality recycled products, offer additional tax incentives for end users of these products, as well as establish national standards regarding recycling facilities.

San Francisco Shows What’s Possible 

San Francisco currently boasts the highest recycling and composting rate in the country – 80%, and is striving to achieve zero waste. To reach this goal, in 2009, it passed laws to make it mandatory for businesses and residents to recycle and implemented a three-bin system which simplifies the sorting process – blue bin means recyclables, green means
organics waste and black bin is for anything sent to the landfill.

They also create financial incentive through a “pay as you throw” scheme – the more you put in the black bin the more expensive your bill gets. To reduce plastic waste, it enforced a ban on using polystyrene in food-service as this material is more difficult to recycle as well as a ban on single-use plastic bags.

The city even sends auditors (free of charge) to businesses and homes to inspect their existing waste disposal strategies and suggest improvements as part of a community education program.

Likewise, San Francisco is working with manufacturers on changes in packaging that can improve recycling rates. We can take juice boxes as an example. Although they’re made out of cardboard on the outside, the inside is lined with mylar which would mean that the consumer has to open the box and peel off the lining. This isn’t something you can realistically expect. A more attainable tactic is to convince manufacturers to use more environmentally sustainable packaging.

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