Is This the End of Recycling? (2023)

Technology

Americans are consuming more and more stuff. Now that other countries won’t take our papers and plastics, they’re ending up in the trash.

By Alana Semuels
(Video) What Happens to Your Recycling After It's Collected? | NowThis

After decades of earnest public-information campaigns, Americans are finally recycling. Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country have bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you can be fined if inspectors discover that you haven’t recycled appropriately.

But now much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.

For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.

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Most are choosing the latter. “We are doing our best to be environmentally responsible, but we can’t afford it,” said Judie Milner, the city manager of Franklin, New Hampshire. Since 2010, Franklin has offered curbside recycling and encouraged residents to put paper, metal, and plastic in their green bins. When the program launched, Franklin could break even on recycling by selling it for $6 a ton. Now, Milner told me, the transfer station is charging the town $125 a ton to recycle, or $68 a ton to incinerate. One-fifth of Franklin’s residents live below the poverty line, and the city government didn’t want to ask them to pay more to recycle, so all those carefully sorted bottles and cans are being burned. Milner hates knowing that Franklin is releasing toxins into the environment, but there’s not much she can do. “Plastic is just not one of the things we have a market for,” she said.

The same thing is happening across the country. Broadway, Virginia, had a recycling program for 22 years, but recently suspended it after Waste Management told the town that prices would increase by 63 percent, and then stopped offering recycling pickup as a service. “It almost feels illegal, to throw plastic bottles away,” the town manager, Kyle O’Brien, told me.

Without a market for mixed paper, bales of the stuff started to pile up in Blaine County, Idaho; the county eventually stopped collecting it and took the 35 bales it had hoped to recycle to a landfill. The town of Fort Edward, New York, suspended its recycling program in July and admitted it had actually been taking recycling to an incinerator for months. Determined to hold out until the market turns around, the nonprofit Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful has collected 400,000 tons of plastic. But for now, it is piling the bales behind the facility where it collects plastic.

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.

Read: ‘We are all accumulating mountains of things

For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the costs of all this garbage are growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash.

One of those costs is environmental: When organic waste sits in a landfill, it decomposes, emitting methane, which is bad for the climate—landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the country. Burning plastic may create some energy, but it also produces carbon emissions. And while many incineration facilities bill themselves as “waste to energy” plants, studies have found that they release more harmful chemicals, such as mercury and lead, into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants.

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And as cities are now learning, the other cost is financial. The United States still has a fair amount of landfill space left, but it’s getting expensive to ship waste hundreds of miles to those landfills. Some dumps are raising costs to deal with all this extra waste; according to one estimate, along the West Coast, landfill fees increased by $8 a ton from 2017 to 2018. Some of these costs are already being passed on to consumers, but most haven’t—yet.

Americans are going to have to come to terms with a new reality: All those toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles that didn’t exist 50 years ago need to go somewhere, and creating this much waste has a price we haven’t had to pay so far. “We’ve had an ostrich-in-the-sand approach to the entire system,” said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade association. “We’re producing a lot of waste ourselves, and we should take care of it ourselves.”

As the trash piles up, American cities are scrambling to figure out what to do with everything they had previously sent to China. But few businesses want it domestically, for one very big reason: Despite all those advertising campaigns, Americans are terrible at recycling.

About 25 percent of what ends up in the blue bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. For decades, we’ve been throwing just about whatever we wanted—wire hangers and pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and yogurt containers—into the bin and sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. That’s no longer an option. And in the United States, at least, it rarely makes sense to employ people to sort through our recycling so that it can be made into new material, because virgin plastics and paper are still cheaper in comparison.

Even in San Francisco, often lauded for its environmentalism, waste-management companies struggle to keep recycling uncontaminated. I visited a state-of-the-art facility operated by San Francisco’s recycling provider, Recology, where million-dollar machines separate aluminum from paper from plastic from garbage. But as the Recology spokesman Robert Reed walked me through the plant, he kept pointing out nonrecyclables gumming up the works. Workers wearing masks and helmets grabbed laundry baskets off a fast-moving conveyor belt of cardboard as some non-cardboard items escaped their gloved hands. Recology has to stop another machine twice a day so a technician can pry plastic bags from where they’ve clogged up the gear.

Is This the End of Recycling? (2)

Cleaning up recycling means employing people to slowly go through materials, which is expensive. Jacob Greenberg, a commissioner in Blaine County, Idaho, told me that the county’s mixed-paper recycling was about 90 percent clean. But its paper broker said the mixed paper needed to be 99 percent clean for anyone to buy it, and elected officials didn’t want to hike fees to get there. “At what point do you feel like you’re spending more money than what it takes for people to feel good about recycling?” he said.

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Then there’s the challenge of educating people about what can and can’t be recycled, even as the number of items they touch on a daily basis grows. Americans tend to be “aspirational” about their recycling, tossing an item in the blue bin because it makes them feel less guilty about consuming it and throwing it away. Even in San Francisco, Reed kept pointing out items that aren’t easily recyclable but that keep showing up at the Recology plant: soy-sauce packets and pizza boxes, candy-bar wrappers and dry-cleaner bags, the lids of to-go coffee cups and plastic take-out containers.

If we can somehow figure out how to better sort recycling, some U.S. markets for plastics and paper may emerge. But selling it domestically will still be harder than it would be in a place such as China, where a booming manufacturing sector has constant demand for materials. The viability of recycling varies tremendously by locale; San Francisco can recycle its glass back into bottles in six weeks, according to Recology, while many other cities are finding that glass is so heavy and breaks so easily that it is nearly impossible to truck it to a place that will recycle it. Akron, Ohio, is just one of many cities that have ended glass recycling since the China policy changes.

For now, it’s still often cheaper for companies to manufacture using new materials than recycled ones. Michael Rohwer, a director at Business for Social Responsibility, works with companies that try to be more environmentally friendly. He told me that recycled plastic costs pennies more than new plastic, and those pennies add up when you’re manufacturing millions of items. Items made of different types of plastic nearly always end up in the trash, because recyclers can’t separate the plastics from one another—Reed equates it with trying to get the sugar and eggs out of a cake after you’ve baked it. But because companies don’t bear the costs of disposal, they have no incentive to manufacture products out of material that will be easier to recycle.

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. The strong economy means more people have more spending money, too, and often the things they buy, such as new phones, and the places they shop, such as Amazon, are designed to sell them even more things. The average American spent 7 percent more on food and 8 percent more on personal-care products and services in 2017 than in 2016, according to government data.

Read: The Amazon selling machine

Some places are still trying to get people to buy less. The city of San Francisco, for instance, is trying to get residents to think of a fourth r beyond “reduce, reuse, and recycle”—“refuse.” It wants people to be smarter about what they purchase, avoiding plastic bottles and straws and other disposable goods. But it’s been tough in a place centered on acquiring the newest technology. “This is our big challenge: How do you take a culture like San Francisco and get people excited about less?” Debbie Raphael, the director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, told me. The city passed an ordinance that required that 10 percent of beverages sold be available in reusable containers, and it is trying to make reuse “hip” through an online campaign and dedicated website, Raphael said. San Francisco and other Bay Area cities have banned plastic bags and plastic straws, but that option isn’t available in many other parts of the country, where recently passed state laws prevent cities from banning products.

But even in San Francisco, the most careful consumers still generate a lot of waste. Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle because the material they’re made of is so flimsy—but it’s hard to find berries not sold in those containers, even at most farmers’ markets. Go into a Best Buy or Target in San Francisco to buy headphones or a charger, and you’ll still end up with plastic packaging to throw away. Amazon has tried to reduce waste by sending products in white and blue plastic envelopes, but when I visited the Recology plant, they littered the floor because they’re very hard to recycle. Even at Recology, an employee-owned company that benefits when people recycle well, the hurdles to getting rid of plastics were evident. Reed chided me for eating my daily Chobani yogurt out of small, five-ounce containers rather than out of big, 32-ounce tubs, but I saw a five-ounce Yoplait container in a trash can of the control room of the Recology plant. While there, Reed handed me a pair of small orange earplugs meant to protect my ears from the noise of the plant. They were wrapped in a type of flimsy plastic that is nearly impossible to recycle. When I left the plant, I kept the earplugs and the plastic in my bag, not sure what to do with them. Eventually, I threw them in the trash.

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FAQs

Is recycling worth it 2022? ›

Saves energy and conserves natural resources. Recycled materials — like paper, plastic and glass — almost always use less energy than new, raw materials.

Does recycling have a future? ›

The future of recycling takes it to the next level, and then some. Recycling has come a long way since curbside pickups. In fact, it's getting to the point where you can recycle (almost) anything, and even more innovation is in the works.

How much of our recycling is actually recycled? ›

Only 5% to 6% of the 46 million tons of plastic waste generated annually in the U.S. gets recycled, a big dip from the last estimate of nearly 9% just a few years ago, according to a new study by two environmental groups focused on creating awareness around plastic pollution.

Why did China stop accepting recycling? ›

China's imports of waste – including recyclables – has been in decline over the last year. Imports of scrap plastic have almost totally stopped due to the trade war. China said that most of the plastic was garbage, and too dirty to recycle.

Is there a better option than recycling? ›

Reusing is better than recycling because it saves the energy that comes with having to dismantle and re-manufacture products. It also significantly reduces waste and pollution because it reduces the need for raw materials, saving both forests and water supplies.

What age groups recycle most? ›

Most people who recycle are between the ages of 18-34 years old, with 92% of that range reporting they recycle. As the age increases, support of recycling slight decreases with 89% of 35- to 49-year-olds, 87% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 68% of those 65 and older reporting they recycle.

What would happen if everyone stop recycling? ›

Landfills Would Fill Up

If everyone stopped using recycling bins, they would instead have to put the waste (like plastic bottles, metal tins, glass jars, paper, etc) into their general rubbish bins. This would then end up in landfills.

Why is recycling still a problem? ›

Poor Recycling Quality Due to Lack of Education

Non-recyclable materials being put in the recycling stream (such as liquids or plastic bags) that contaminate recyclable materials and compromise recycling machinery. Consumers turning to the trash bin in defeat.

Why is the recycling industry in crisis? ›

THE RECYCLING INDUSTRY IS COLLAPSING

Though there are several cited reasons for it, the collapse of recycling is primarily due to high contamination levels in the recycling stream. Contamination is trash or dirty recyclables in the recycling stream, and it cripples the economics of recycling.

Does glass actually get recycled? ›

Glass can be recycled endlessly by crushing, blending, and melting it together with sand and other starting materials. Doing so benefits manufacturers, the environment, and consumers. Yet each year only one-third of the roughly 10 million metric tons of glass that Americans throw away is recycled.

What plastic Cannot be recycled? ›

Examples of non-recyclable plastics include bioplastics, composite plastic, plastic-coated wrapping paper and polycarbonate. Well known non-recyclable plastics include cling film and blister packaging.

Is it worth it to recycle plastic? ›

Yet another problem is that plastic recycling is simply not economical. Recycled plastic costs more than new plastic because collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive. The petrochemical industry is rapidly expanding, which will further lower the cost of new plastic.

Does America actually recycle? ›

US is recycling just 5% of its plastic waste, studies show.

Which country does not recycle? ›

Chile. Chile is the number one worst country for recycling plastic, with less than 1% of their total usage actually being recycled.

Which country recycles the most 2022? ›

Germany is the country with the best record when it comes to recycling. 56.1% of the total waste produced by the country is recycled each year, which is the highest recycling rate of any country in the world.

What are the top 3 most recycled items? ›

What are the Most Recycled Products in the US?
  • Steel. A costly and useful material, steel is used in the manufacturing of automobiles, household appliances, in the construction industry and much more. ...
  • Aluminum Cans. Here a can, there a can, everywhere are beverage cans. ...
  • Plastic Bottles. ...
  • Newspapers.

Is recycling worth it financially? ›

Recycling offers a number of economic – cost savings and jobs creation – and environmental benefits. Well-run recycling programs cost much less to operate than waste collection, landfilling, and incineration.

What is the most profitable thing to recycle? ›

Scrap Metal. The final and most profitable material on our “best items to recycle for money” list is scrap metal. You may already be aware of this if you've ever visited a scrap yard for cars or other types of scrap facilities.

What are 5 things that Cannot be recycled? ›

Non-recyclable items
  • Garbage.
  • Food waste.
  • Food-tainted items (such as: used paper plates or boxes, paper towels, or paper napkins)
  • Ceramics and kitchenware.
  • Windows and mirrors.
  • Plastic wrap.
  • Packing peanuts and bubble wrap.
  • Wax boxes.

What item is recycled the least? ›

Household: 10 Least Recycled Materials
  1. Wrapping paper. ...
  2. Wine bottle corks. ...
  3. Surface cleaner bottle. ...
  4. Aluminium food tubes (tomato puree, toothpaste) ...
  5. Envelopes with windows. ...
  6. Tinfoil, foil trays and foil milk bottle tops. ...
  7. Non-black plant pots. ...
  8. Deodorant aerosols.

What is the most recycled waste? ›

PET is the most widely recycled plastic in the world, with 1.5 billion pounds of discarded PET bottles being collected and recycled annually in the US. Recycling PET saves two-thirds of the energy usually required to produce new plastic, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and drastically reducing solid waste generation.

What will happen by 2050 if we don't recycle? ›

If these trends continue, by 2050 we'll have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste, almost half of which will be dumped in landfills and the environment. Because plastic doesn't degrade easily, there will be zillions of tons of the material on our planet by the end of the millennium.

Is recycling really necessary? ›

There's no denying it. People are using way more bottles and cans than ever before. Recycling them creates new products, conserves natural resources, reduces energy use, and curbs carbon emissions in the sky.

What happens when landfills are full? ›

Once a spot has been used as a landfill site and it fills up, it is covered over and compressed (again), and the area can be used for building. But it can't be opened up for landfill again.

Is recycling actually worse for the environment? ›

By reducing air and water pollution and saving energy, recycling offers an important environmental benefit: it reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons, that contribute to global climate change.

Did the recycling industry collapse? ›

Indeed, the global recycling system has effectively collapsed, and without game-changing innovation, will dramatically impact the state of the planet, and its chances of reining in climate change.

What percentage of plastic actually gets recycled? ›

However, less than 10% of plastic waste generated globally has been recycled so far. A somewhat larger portion (12%) has been incinerated and the rest has simply ended up in landfills and our oceans.

Is America running out of landfill space? ›

Based on data collected by Waste Business Journal, over the next five years, total landfill capacity in the U.S. is forecast to decrease by more than 15%. This means that by 2021 only 15 years of landfill capacity will remain. However, in some regions it could be only half that.

Which country is leading in recycling? ›

Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world. The nation recycles an impressive 66.1% of its waste.

Does recycling actually help climate change? ›

Recycling helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing energy consumption. Using recycled materials to make new products reduces the need for virgin materials. This avoids greenhouse gas emissions that would result from extracting or mining virgin materials.

Is it better to recycle glass or throw it away? ›

Glass is infinitely recyclable without loss in quality. Recycling glass has many proven environmental benefits–it reduces emissions, saves energy, and reduces consumption of raw materials. And as a common household item, recycling the material maintains much public support.

Why don't we recycle more glass? ›

Glass presents some tough recycling problems—including lack of end markets, contamination, and transportation costs—partly because it weighs about 10 times as much as a similar volume of plastic or aluminum. It busts up easily, which makes it hard on equipment and increases maintenance costs.

Are plastic muffin containers recyclable? ›

Most recycling facilities don't accept cups or clamshell containers because they flatten easily when crushed and machines can't correctly sort them out (they often end up with paper). They also melt at a different temperature than other plastics which creates an ash that can ruin an entire batch of good plastic.

What is the most recycled plastic? ›

  • PET. The most widely recycled plastic in the world is PET. ...
  • HDPE. HDPE is accepted at most recycling centers in the world, as it is one of the easiest plastic polymers to recycle. ...
  • PVC. ...
  • LDPE. ...
  • PP. ...
  • PS (POLYSTYRENE) and 7-OTHER.
20 May 2021

How many years does it take for a plastic bottle to fully decompose? ›

Plastic bottles – 450 years.

Why is plastic recycling not profitable? ›

Experts say that recycling with a chemical process is not economically viable because making new, virgin plastic from oil and gas is still much cheaper.

Where does recycled plastic really go? ›

From a recycling bin, plastics are sent by rail or truck to waste-sorting facilities, also called materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, plastics are commonly sorted by like types (think films and bags, bottles, foams) and baled (squashed together into easily transportable space-saving cubes).

Can plastic be recycled indefinitely? ›

I used to think that plastic water bottles could be infinitely recycled, that every time I tossed one into the blue bin, it eventually came out to be another plastic bottle. As it turns out, that's not the case. Some materials can be recycled infinitely, but plastic is not one of them.

Does the US ship garbage to China? ›

For years, America sold millions of tons of used yogurt cups, juice containers, shampoo bottles and other kinds of plastic trash to China to be recycled into new products. And it wasn't just the U.S. Some 70 percent of the world's plastic waste went to China – about 7 million tons a year.

What US city recycles the most? ›

San Francisco – Of course, the crown of the most recycling-friendly city must go to one which makes mass recycling work on a huge scale. Landfill disposal in the USA's San Francisco is at its lowest rate ever, reporting that over 80% of its waste is diverted via reduction (6), reuse, and recycling schemes every year.

What is the most recycled thing in the US? ›

Did you know that steel is the most recycled material in the world? In North America, we recycle around 80 million tons of steel each year. That's more than the weight of all of the cars in the entire state of California. It's also more than all the paper, plastic, aluminum and glass we recycle each year combined.

Why is China refusing US recycling? ›

China's imports of waste – including recyclables – has been in decline over the last year. Imports of scrap plastic have almost totally stopped due to the trade war. China said that most of the plastic was garbage, and too dirty to recycle.

Does anything actually get recycled? ›

Only 5% to 6% of the 46 million tons of plastic waste generated annually in the U.S. gets recycled, a big dip from the last estimate of nearly 9% just a few years ago, according to a new study by two environmental groups focused on creating awareness around plastic pollution.

Why do Americans not recycle? ›

People don't know how to recycle, what can be recycled or what to do with it. The top reason Americans say they don't recycle regularly is a lack of convenient access. Then there's the fact that items put in recycling aren't always recycled.

Which country has no plastic? ›

1. St Kitts and Nevis. The small two-island nation of St Kitts and Nevis is a popular Caribbean destination that is addressing the problem of single-use plastic to preserve its natural beauty and tourist appeal.

What age groups recycle the most? ›

A DS Smith survey in the US, released in May 2021, found that Baby Boomers are the most motivated to recycle boxes. Broken out by generation, Baby Boomers (71%) hold themselves more accountable for responsibly recycling their boxes than millennials (60%), Gen Z (59%) and Gen X (58%).

What country recycles the most food? ›

South Korea, historically having one of the world's highest rates of food waste, now recycles 95% of its food waste, up from 2% in 1995. What can the rest of the world learn from the Asian country?

What percentage of the world recycles 2022? ›

Every year, people all over the world are producing a shocking amount of trash. Even though most of it can be recycled or composted, the majority is still dumped in landfills. Only about 13% is recycled on the global level.

What percentage of plastic is recycled in 2022? ›

India generates 3.6 lakh million tonnes plastic waste, 50% of it is recycled. The minister also said that the number of registered plastic waste processors under Plastic Waste Management Rules is 1,419.

Is recycling worth the effort? ›

Recycling is worth it when it comes to all metals, though we're better at recycling aluminum than say neodymium. In principle it could work for plastic, too. But because plastic is made from petrochemicals, low oil prices can make it cheaper to just dump old plastic and manufacture new.

Which resource has the highest recycling rate? ›

Measured by percent of generation, lead-acid batteries are by far the most recycled materials in the US, according to data provided by the EPA. From 2010 until 2017, lead-acid batteries had a consistent recycling rate of 99.1%.

Does recycling affect climate change? ›

Recycling helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing energy consumption. Using recycled materials to make new products reduces the need for virgin materials. This avoids greenhouse gas emissions that would result from extracting or mining virgin materials.

Which country is recycling the most? ›

Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world. The nation recycles an impressive 66.1% of its waste.

What country recycles the least? ›

Chile. Chile is the number one worst country for recycling plastic, with less than 1% of their total usage actually being recycled.

What age group recycles the least? ›

Millennials (ages 25-34) are overall the least into recycling – a solid half of this age group is split between only recycling on occasion but not often or simply not at all. Further data reveal the extent to which age is such a critical factor underlying recycling habits.

What Year Will plastic take over? ›

Enormous amount of plastic will fill oceans, land by 2040 even with immediate global action, report says.

How much of paper is actually recycled? ›

Paper is one of the most-often recycled materials, accounting for half of the materials collected for recycling by weight. 11. More than 50 million tons of paper were recovered for recycling in 2021, achieving a 68% recycling rate.

Is plastic pollution getting better? ›

Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short, says OECD.

Do Millennials care about recycling? ›

Despite their desire to champion sustainability, some Millennials aren't great recyclers – a challenge that waste and recycling providers are keen to address. Surprisingly, a recent UK poll revealed that less than fifty per cent of all Millennials recycle items where this would be possible.

What percentage of people recycle? ›

Of that, Americans recycled or composted 93.9 million tons for a nationwide recycling rate of 32.1%.

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