Blog post: Recycling is in crisis


Recycling is a sensible way to have a positive impact on the world. It protects the environment by reducing waste sent to landfills, and incinerators which increase pollution and emissions. It promotes sustainable manufacturing by conserving useful material and natural resources, thus saving energy. Recycling also improves the economy by tapping into a domestic source of materials, increases security, and creates jobs. These benefits are evident when the recycling system is a well-oiled machine. Germany–for example–has a successful waste management program. It recycles around 56% of its municipal waste. It even pays individuals for each bottle they return to deposit systems which have guaranteed 98.5% of refillable bottles being returned for recycling.

The current reality of recycling in the US isn’t as favorable where just 9% of plastic is recycled. America was making strides in the recycling world until China–a huge importer of our waste–started rejecting our scraps due to their contaminated nature. Our recycling stream is consistently contaminated because there are no national laws governing the US recycling industry which is frequently financed by municipalities who work with private contractors.  Therefore, rules can differ across municipalities due to the absence of universal guidelines and labels.

This lack of clarity leads to public confusion on what can and cannot be recycled, and to the inevitable impurity. Roughly 1 in 4 items placed in recycling containers are contaminated. Some key offenders of contamination include: plastic bags, pizza boxes or any containers with food residue or liquids, paper towels, most disposable coffee cups and their lids, styrofoam, and plastic take-out containers. People usually have good intentions, but they simply don’t know all of the rules.



Curbside recycling is usually picked up, sorted, and the marketable goods are sold to domestic or overseas processors. China has always been a major buyer of our post-consumer waste, but it has gotten fed up with our contaminated waste. As part of fighting pollution, China has cracked down on “foreign garbage” by banning 24 categories of solid waste, including various types of plastic and paper. For products that weren’t outright banned, China will only accept a 0.5 percent max contamination standard, and considers everything else as trash. For perspective, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses in the US sits at around 25%. China can reject an entire load if any contamination is found. 

Removing contamination after it enters the stream can be difficult, and reduces profitability. Facilities are struggling, and having to hire more pickers to sort through the waste, or buying more equipment to remove delinquent items. In addition to slowing down processing lines, contaminated items can also gum up equipment when certain plastics get stuck in machinery. Waste-management companies are forced to raise recycling rates, or end up closing down as their costs rise. Others are refusing to accept most plastics, glass and certain types of paper–or they send them to landfills, or incinerators, where they’re being burned alongside garbage. 

In Pennsylvania, a whopping 200 tons of recycling material is sent to an incinerator every day since the ban took effect. Almost every state has felt the burden of China’s policies. It used to be against the law to put bottles and cans in landfills, but many local officials started granting waivers for dumping unmarketable materials. When in a landfill, waste decomposes, and emits methane, contributing to climate change and pollution.  And while many incineration facilities bill themselves as “waste to energy” plants, studies have found that they release harmful chemicals, such as mercury, lead, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter into the air, and cause an array of health problems. This toxic pollution disproportionately affects those who are unable to fight back against it. Studies have shown that black, Hispanic, and low-income communities are much more likely than other Americans to be exposed to hazardous materials. That’s because in the US, race is the single biggest factor that determines whether people live near a hazardous waste facility.


Recycling has the potential to simultaneously stimulate the economy, create jobs, and help protect the environment. Therefore, we need to continue encouraging it, and resolve the issues that plague it. Government officials need to work with the industry, and develop a network of markets within the United States for recycling. Some companies find it more profitable to dump in landfills, so this conflict of interest needs to be addressed as well. Labels and guidelines need to be standardized on every bin to tackle contamination stemming from confusing recycling instructions. Businesses need to do their fair share, instead of placing the entire burden on the consumer. They need to be more efficient in planning their product life cycles, and innovate their design to create environmentally friendly products. 

Recycling is in crisis, and it’s at a time when we are creating more waste than ever. As individuals, we have a role to play too, which boils down to recycling the right items the right way. The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself recycling guidelines in your municipality. We also need to move towards zero waste, and curb our hunger for consumption. The most effective way to reduce waste is by not creating it in the first place. Whenever possible, don’t use, accept or buy single-use plastics. Check out some of our tips here on shrinking your plastic footprint. By working together, we can make recycling great for the environment, and we can make it economically sustainable for years to come.

Sources | Further Readings:
‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports
Is This the End of Recycling?
Recycling Is Broken
Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not
Recycle Across America
The Battle Against Recycling Contamination is Everyone’s Battle



You can go back to the blog by clicking here