Americans have come to embrace recycling their trash with an almost religious fervor, but in some sense they are praying to a false god. In the quarter-century over which its acolytes have swelled, recycling has almost come full circle, from near total indifference all the way around to near total impossibility. In between, and especially over the past couple of years, just when many localities had seen the light, their recycling efforts started bogging down. It wasn’t just that China banned imports of raw recyclables from the US in early 2018, although that was a wallop that the industry hasn’t recovered from. A 2018 report from the Washington State Ecology Department notes:
China is the largest consumer of North American recyclables. One-third of all scrap material collected in the U.S. is shipped overseas, with the large majority going to China. In 2016, the U.S. exported $5.6 billion in scrap commodities to China. This makes recyclable materials the sixth largest U.S. export to China.
The prime reason China gave for rejecting American trash was that its valuable plastics were laced with non-recyclable contaminants. This was true, and I’ll talk about why, but Trump’s tariffs and geopolitical rivalry probably made it happen when it did. Regardless, even had China not shut that door, we would still be in a tizzy over how to make our vast waste stream go away. Americans simply buy and toss too much stuff and their expectations that it will all be magically disposed of properly simply don’t jibe with reality.
When I first lobbied for recycling more household waste in the 1980s, few types of rubbish could be handled by recycling facilities—if you or your department of public works could find one. A lot has changed for the better since then. Accordingto the economic consulting firm John Dunham & Associates, by 2017 the US recycling industry had an economic impact of $117 billion and directly or indirectly employed more than 534,500 workers to collect, haul, process, and furnish facilities, equipment, transportation, and supplies.But how can we tell if that money is well spent, how well are towns, cities, states, and the industry handling all the stuff we keep throwing out, and what’s a citizen-consumer to do about it?
Last year, our town just west of Boston switched solid waste vendors to boost trash collection to new heights of automation. Within a month, its new contractor had distributed two massive two-wheeled receptacles to every household: a black one with a 64-gallon capacity for garbage, and a bigger blue 96-gallon one—large enough to stuff a couple of non-dismembered bodies into — for recyclables. The town instructed residents to wheel out their carts and line them along the curb on pickup day, front facing the street, with lids closed. Citizens dutifully obey, emplacing the sturdy sentinels to form temporary no-parking zones. And in winter, when snow mounds up over curbs, the carts make driving along narrow streets even more of a slalom.
My household’s carts are rarely more than a quarter full. As they are a pain to rumble out to the curb, I’m sometimes tempted to deposit our one or two waste bags in a neighbor’s cart. But that somehow feels more transgressive that it should, and, as many residents top theirs off and some keep going, there might not be room in it. It’s hard to imagine how one family can possibly generate that much solid waste, but a lot of them do. Overflowing carts are officially prohibited, but they get emptied anyway, with occasional spillage for critters to root through.
Trash gets picked up every week; recycling every other week on the same day. Two sets of towering garbage trucks lumber through the streets with retractable robot arms that grasp one-inch-thick steel bars on the bins to tip them into their hoppers, and then set the empties down with a resounding thud. As the new carts plus contents are too heavy for most mortals to lift, the robots are necessary. And, whereas each truck formerly had a driver plus one or two sanitation workers to pick up and empty our old trash barrels, now only the drivers remain. Even aided by cameras and other sensors to deploy the arms, the driver has more to do than before, and the workers that formerly rode with them are ostensibly looking for jobs, perhaps repairing robots.
The new receptacles are unwieldy, hulking eyesores that clog curbs and take up more space to stow than the barrels they replaced, which either now clutter yards and driveways or were pitched into the waste stream. The new bins’ greater capacity encourages residents to consume more stuff and, being free, deprive stores that sell trash barrels of accustomed revenues, their distant supplier having cut out those middlemen. On the plus side, we now have single-stream recycling, meaning we can chuck all our recyclable items, whether paper, glass, metal, or plastic, into the same bin. No more sorting conundrums like “Does this juice carton go with paper or plastic?” Nonetheless, such convenience comes at a price.
After decades of nagging by environmental pressure groups and citizen activists, the public and municipal officials are starting to get real—even enthusiastic—about recycling. The same forces have pressured consumer product companies, food processors, and food vendors to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, with some success. But while less waste goes to waste than used to, much of it—particularly plastics—poses difficult challenges to recyclers as the composition of the waste stream and demand for recycled materials have changed.
Take paper products: Thanks mainly to electronic documents and drastic declines in newspaper readership, there’s a lot less recyclable paper being tossed out and less demand for it. Also, the supply of corrugated cardboard (think home delivery detritus) keeps growing. Cardboard can be transformed into more of the same and building materials. For paper, less consumption means a smaller or stagnant market for recycled paper fiber. As waste paper becomes less valuable, fewer recycling haulers want to handle it, and those that do may charge municipalities more for the privilege.
Increasingly replaced by plastic ones, fewer glass bottles and jars are being discarded. Their affixed labels make them unsuitable for remanufacturing, so most get get pulverized for mixing into concrete and asphalt, but that product isn’t very profitable. Too, the plastic containers superseding them keep getting flimsier. Many are made of lower-grade resin that isn’t economical to recycle into other products. And because they are so much lighter, a ton of them (the unit of measure for valuing most recyclable materials) takes up way more space than glass, metal, or paper, decreasing the tonnage and thus the value of a truckload of baled plastic. Many containers are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a clear polyester resin, also made into plastic sheets and films). Despite possibly leaching endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the more rigid PET containers are sought-after recyclables. However, for PET to be eligible for remanufacturing, flimsy lower-grade containers must first be separated out. As triaging PET is labor-intensive, many processing facilities don’t bother to, prompting some of China’s complaints.
To discover which type of plastic you are about to toss, you should refer to its resin code, fuzzily embossed within a triangle on container bottoms (keep a magnifier handy). But bearing such a brand doesn’t necessarily mean an item is recyclable. That totally depends on whether the recycling facility your trash gets sent to accepts that code, which isn’t generally easy to know (ask your local DPW.) Here’s a cheat sheet that identifies the seven most common resins, what they are used for, and what types of products they can be recycled into. PET’s code number is one.
Confounding this regime, many containers for food and consumer products imported from abroad don’t carry resin identifiers, puzzling diligent consumers and complicating their recycling. In addition, many foods now come in even lighter packaging, such as thin-film pouches. Think about potato chips, which once came in wax or coated paper bags; now many are sealed in metalized Mylar (PET) pouches. While they create less waste, pouches aren’t a win for recyclers because there’s less substance to make new things out of and what there is may consist of compound materials that can’t be economically separated. And so, much packaging gets buried or burned. In a landfill, its half-life is measured in centuries. Combusted in a furnace, it fills the air we breathe with all sorts of exciting compounds. And even if recyclable, many plastics expose humans to allergens, immune suppressants, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens with effects such as adiposity, insulin resistance, and decreased levels of sex hormones, harming children most of all.
Those nice heavy-duty black takeout food containers—and in fact all black plastics—aren’t recyclable, by the way. Even though most are PET, as sturdy as they may be, they end up in landfills because the spectral scanners that inform automate sorting machines can’t see into them to determine what they’re made of. If you are presented with one, feel free to wash and reuse it and request that the vendor switch to paper containers like Chinese food boxes. Being plastic-coated, they aren’t recyclable either, but at least they aren’t completely plastic.
And then there is food wrap, lightweight plastic grocery and produce bags, bubble wrap, and those puffy little pillows that you find nestled in delivery parcels that get thrown or blown into oceans and waterways, strangling or immobilizing marine animals. Nearly nine million tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans every year, much of which nature has kindly accumulated in five giant garbage patches around the planet, as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others have reported. The largest of these, the Great Pacific Garbage Patchbetween Hawaii and the US mainland, is the size of France. Nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanupexplains that, over time, plastic items degrade into tiny motes of “microplastic” that marine organisms ingest and pass up the food chain, eventually to people.
Plastic bags aren’t suitable for recycling but many are disposed of as if they were, along with flimsy, clear clam-shell produce containers and crinkly beverage bottles—all low-grade materials that can’t be given a new life, despite being labeled with an acceptable resin number. They must be separated at the plant to prevent grinders from seizing up and reusable byproducts from being polluted. Given China’s trash embargo, there is room for improvement.
To add to our confusion, different localities have varying rules governing what materials are accepted for recycling. You might be told not to recycle glassware along with bottles. Lids may or may not need to be removed from bottles and jars. Tinfoil, egg cartons, or empty pill bottles may or may not be accepted. Certain resin identifiers may be excluded, as may small metal items and scraps, but not cans.Accordingto the East Bay Express, even so-called “compostable bioplastic” containers, tableware, and utensils are likely to be unwanted. Sadly, although made from plant material such as starch, chitin, and sugar cane, they won’t degrade in your compost heap; it takes processing plants with high-temperature digesters to break them down, but once tossed into the waste stream they are rarely rescued. Same for compostable clear bioplastics made with PLA (polylactic acid, identified by a green stripe). Most consumers blithely recycle them along with petroleum-based plastics. If recyclers can’t sort them out, the batch is apt to be declared contaminated and sent to a landfill.
There’s a long way to go. Despite a leveling off of per-capita waste creation, our total waste production continues to climb:
For further inconvenient facts and figures on recycling in the US, though not the most up-to-date, see Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015, a publication by the EPA that quantifies trends in material generation and disposal methods between 1960 and 2015.Among other things, it reveals that paper products by far have the highest rate of recycling: 66 percent, by weight, in 2015. The worst? Plastic, at 9.1 percent, as this chart (courtesy of The Technoskeptic) shows.
See also the Waste360 website for many interactive graphics depicting what gets recycled and what doesn’t.
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You wanna help? Bring reusable bags with you when you shop. Top off a durable water bottle with filtered tap water and take it with you when you leave home. Don’t buy bottled water or any beverage in flimsy bottles. (In any event, bottled water costs more per gallon than gasoline and may not be all that pure.) Tell your grocer you want to take home produce in paper bags or cardboard containers, not those clear plastic ones that are so hard to wrench open and whose future uses are limited to growing seedlings. Better yet, bring reusable produce bags with you when you shop. Also, ask the meat counter to wrap meat, poultry and fish in paper rather than put them out shrink-wrapped polystyrene trays, or at least to dispense with the trays.
Buy beer and soda in cans or glass bottles. Lobby for “bottle bills” that require deposits on drink containers and for bans on disposable plastic grocery bags. Bring your own mugs to cafés and invest in a few metal straws. Compost food scraps and dispose of what you can’t in paper sacks rather than in plastic garbage bags whose sole mission is to be buried or burned. If you’re an apartment dweller, advocate for a municipal composting program to divert food scraps from landfills to community gardens.
And when you need durable goods, find used appliances, furniture, clothes, and electronics on Craigslist or Freecycle or at rummage sales. Ten of my 12 cars were pre-owned. Each one avoided the junkyard for up to ten years and helped keep my auto mechanic in business. Join environmental groups working in your area to reduce the waste steam and ban stuff like Styrofoam containers, plastic bags, cutlery, and straws.
Good progress is being made in banning or cutting down on non-reusable plastic items and toxic ingredients like bisphenol-A (BPA).Even so, there’s only so much a person, an organization, or even the recycling industry itself can do to stem the tsunami of product containers, more and more of which are of such complex or exotic construction that they cannot be recycled at all. These sorts of trashy innovations have to be curtailed.
The only reason for having a 96-gallon recycling cart is to hold all those boxes and containers that consumable products come in. If mountains of unusable refuse are the necessary price of economic growth, we need to rethink the whole economy, starting with home economics. Reduce mail orders. Buy locally made products from local retailers and pay them with cash or checks. (They’ll thank you.) Choose and demand low-tech packaging, preferably plant-based that can be recycled, downcycled, or composted. Bone up on which plastics can harm your health. Reuse empty containers that are hard to recycle to the extent it’s practical or safe. Walk, cycle, scoot, or take transit to the store and of course, don’t forget your shopping bags.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Technoskeptic magazine, 3/20/2019.
 China’s Recycling Ban, Dept. of Ecology, University of Washington, https://ecology.wa.gov/Waste-Toxics/Reducing-recycling-waste/China-s-recycling-ban
Global Recycling Magazine (2018), USA: Recycling Generates 117 Billion US-Dollar per Year, https://global-recycling.info/archives/2172
Rustagi, N., Pradhan, S. K., & Singh, R. (2011). Public health impact of plastics: An overview. Indian journal of occupational and environmental medicine, 15(3), 100-3.
The Ocean Cleanup, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
 East Bay Express, 11/14/18,The Problems With Bioplastics, https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-problems-with-bioplastics/Content?oid=22699508
US EPA: Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet; PDF version: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-07/documents/2015_smm_msw_factsheet_07242018_fnl_508_002.pdf
HTML version: Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling
David Bodamer, 14 Charts from the EPA’s Latest MSW Estimates.
Scientific papers relating to Bisphenol-A at PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Bisphenol+A