By: Sarah Pyle
Image courtesy of Unsplash
What happens to the items that get recycled in the United States? Since the 1970s when they were first introduced, recycling programs in the United States have been treated as an environmentally-friendly method of reusing materials rather than sending them to the landfill. However, in reality, very little of the waste we generate actually ends up getting recycled. Currently, only about 32% of waste generated in the United States gets recycled. This rate is even lower for plastic, of which less than 10% gets recycled. The most recent data on recycling from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put plastic recycling at only 8.7% in 2018, which further dropped to 5-6% in 2021 according to other estimates. While the notion of recycling being an easy fix for our excessive waste is appealing, the data shows a very different picture. Overall, major legislative and societal changes such as reforming the recycling system, minimizing waste, and reducing plastic production are necessary to make meaningful improvements to the United States' recycling rate.
Recycling is beneficial for various health, economic, aesthetic, and environmental reasons. Material that doesn’t get recycled typically ends up in the landfill or the environment. Despite the “out of sight, out of mind” mindset many people have towards garbage, sending millions of tons of recyclable material to landfills has consequences. At the surface level, waste is an aesthetic issue when litter, pollution, and piles of trash in landfills are visible. However, what is even more concerning is the danger of waste endangering humans and wildlife due to litter getting into natural environments. In particular, plastics and microplastics that get into the environment can harm wildlife due to chemical leaching, ingestion, and entanglement. These plastics and the toxic chemicals associated with them can spread throughout the ecosystem and eventually enter humans through the process of biomagnification. Yet another concern is the contamination of water sources due to landfill “leachate”. Leachate is formed when water gets into landfills and becomes contaminated with chemicals such as heavy metals, phenols, chloride, nitrogen, solvents, and volatile organic compounds from the waste. The leachate can then get into wells and contaminate groundwater through seepage.
Unfortunately, recycling rates also vary by quite a bit depending on where you live or what item you are recycling. Different states and localities may have their own recycling programs, each of which has different standards for which materials they can accept. While 70% of Americans living in urban and suburban areas have access to curbside recycling, the same is true for only 40% of Americans living in rural areas. Recycling rates also vary widely between states. According to a 2021 study by Eunomia, Maine had the highest recycling rate at 72%, while West Virginia had the lowest with just 2%. Further, whether or not a particular material can be recycled or accepted by a recycling facility differs based on the city you are in, not just the state. Even after an item gets recycled, there are several issues that might prevent it from actually being recycled. Many materials that can theoretically be recycled end up in landfills anyway due to contamination. If even one item is contaminated, an entire batch of recycled material can be discarded and sent to the landfill. Contamination can occur when an item has food residue from not being cleaned properly, or when recyclable materials are improperly sorted. Even if a material is recyclable, it can still be a contaminant if it is mixed in with a batch of a different type of material. Additionally, even if a facility claims to accept all seven types of plastic, often only plastics #1, #2, and possibly #5 (PET, HDPE, and PP, respectively) will actually be recycled while the rest is thrown away.
There are several steps everyone can take to help increase the amount of material that gets recycled. At an individual level, being informed about which materials can be recycled, washing excess food before recycling, and minimizing littering can all help. However, while individual action can help, the United States needs to prioritize restructuring its recycling programs. The current system is underfunded and underdeveloped. Even if all households started recycling everything perfectly, the recycling rate would still be unacceptably low. Fortunately, there has been legislation proposed to help address this issue.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) of 2021 is a bill that has been introduced to Congress that aims to reduce plastic production, waste, and pollution. The bill includes terms that could improve recycling by clearly defining what counts as “recycling” and shifting recycling costs to manufacturers. Another introduced bill relating to recycling is the 2020 Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Research Act. If passed, this bill would establish a program centered around recycling research and plastic waste reduction and would require the development of a federal plastic waste reduction plan and plastic recycling technology standards. In addition to these federal-level bills, individual states have developed their own regulations to help improve their recycling programs. The creation of federal and state regulations are all positive steps toward fixing some of the issues with recycling in the United States, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
It is irresponsible to continue generating as much plastic as the United States does under the guise that the public choosing to recycle can negate the impacts of that waste. While there are steps we can and should take toward improving our recycling rates, any meaningful change is still far from becoming a reality. Until we get there, the best way to help protect the environment and ourselves is to limit the amount of plastic and other waste that is generated throughout the country. Many cities have already put in place their own variations of regulations on materials like single-use plastics and polystyrene. As individuals, we can all help make a change by being aware of our own unnecessary waste and trying to make more environmentally-conscious choices when possible.
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