This Is Why We Suck At Recycling Plastic

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Bottle cap that reads, "Please recycle"
Easier said than done. Photo by Donald Trung Quoc Don, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

So, recycling. Ugh. Amirite? What’s the deal with it? How are you supposed to do it right? Why does it keep changing? Does it even matter? In the end, isn’t everything doomed to be obliterated in the expanding fires of the Sun as it transforms in to a red giant, consuming the entirety of the Earth?

Well, I mean, yeah, eventually. But with that attitude, why did you even bother getting up this morning? For that matter, why did *I* get up this morning? Should I have just stayed in bed, mourning for the eventual heat death of the Universe in between bouts of watching cat videos on my phone?

Probably.

But, I didn’t, and you didn’t, so here we all are. Talking about recycling, apparently. Fine, fine. I can do this. The cat videos will still be there later.

In America, our current state of recycling is, to use an industry term, a “fucking mess”. We’re just bad at it, honestly. Consumers like you and me are bad at it, yes, but also the recycling companies themselves have been dropping the ball. Manufacturers have been dropping the ball. Governments have been dropping the ball. So many balls, just dropped on the ground. It’s like the ball pits at the fast food joint playground, except instead of French fries and urine, it smells like stale beer from all the empty cans of Bud you’ve been recycling.

So, we all have this problem. Americans suck at recycling. It’s no one particular person’s fault. I mean, even if your idea of recycling is to just chuck everything in the blue bin once the black one fills up, that’s not entirely your fault. Somewhere along the way, we failed to educate you. Nobody ever told you why it mattered. Your local government didn’t tell you how to do it right, or they didn’t encourage you to do it right. But we can do better, and we need to do better.

Who gives a shit about recycling?

Why does recycling matter? Well, there’s a couple of different reasons. One, we don’t have an endless supply of resources available to us. Maybe one day we’ll be mining asteroids and shipping ingots of precious metals back to Earth, but until then, we have to make do with what we can find down here. And while it’s true, there’s still things like oil and iron left to extract from the environment, it’s not easy. Plus, the more we use, the harder it is to get more. Just from a strictly practical viewpoint, it makes more sense to recycle these materials rather than burn them or stuff them into a landfill. Is it wise to pull all the oil out of the ground now, turn it into plastic cups, and then bury it all? Or might it be better to try to do that as little as possible, to hang on to that limited, finite resource as long as we can? In the short term, throwing shit away seems cheaper and easier, but in the long run, we’re better off being more frugal with our resources.

It’s also often cheaper to recycle, not just in terms of money, but also energy use and pollution production. No matter what you’re making, it’s usually more energy efficient to make it from recycled materials than new, raw material. How much depends on the material. For metal, it’s almost criminal to throw that soda can away and send it to a landfill. 95% of the energy used to make aluminum products comes from the extraction, transport, and refining of the ore. Recycling skips all that. And since consuming energy often means burning fossil fuels, producing carbon dioxide, and contributing to climate change, you’re saving more than just money and energy by recycling your flavored seltzer cans. You really, really should recycle any and all metals. It’s so hard to get metal out of the ground and into a useable form, it’s always going to be worthwhile to recycle it. I know, when you were digging around in Minecraft, it seemed pretty easy, but it ain’t, just trust me on this.

Huge pile of garbage at a landfill
So, we put an asston of shit into landfills. Lots could be recycled. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Plus, the alternatives are ugly. One option is to bury waste materials in a landfill, where they’re not only going to waste, but also producing methane (another greenhouse gas) and leaking various lovely toxins in to the water table. You can also burn it, which can at least allow you to generate some electricity. Problem is, it’s also the dirtiest way to make electricity, going by carbon emissions. It also results in the production of toxic ashes that, guess what, generally end up in a landfill anyway. The third option, which is more common than you think, is to just fucking dump it out in the open somewhere. You don’t really see this in the United States, because it’s generally illegal as hell, but other countries aren’t as picky or as eager to enforce their pollution laws. This is obviously the worst of the available solutions, because it’s not really a solution at all.

Okay, so that’s a quick summary of why you should recycle. So the bigger question is, what the hell happened? If you’ve been trying to recycle plastic the past couple of years, you’ve noticed a few crazy things. Programs that used to recycle many types of plastic now only allow #1 and #2 plastics, and many areas restrict even that to only bottles and jugs. Anything else, like the plastic “clamshells” that your spinach comes in, is no longer allowed in the mixed recycling, even though it’s the right type of plastic. Some areas aren’t even bothering to recycle plastic at all now. What the hell? How did we go from “recycle everything to save Gaia the Earth Mother” to “fuck it, whatever, I guess we’ll still take your junk mail and soup cans, probably I guess”?

What the hell happened to American recycling?

Well, there’s a few things going on here, but the biggest issue has been the fact that for years and years now, North America and Europe have actually been bundling up their recyclables and shipping them to China. You know how China has been producing all kinds of cheap goods and shipping it over to us? Well, we haven’t been shipping that many goods back over to them. Rather than sending those giant cargo vessels back across the Pacific empty, we’ve been filling them with bales of mixed recyclables that nobody in the U.S. thought was profitable to process. And when those ships reached China, all that disgusting, messy crap just magically evaporated in to the Mystical Chinese Portal and we never had to worry about it again.

Well… or maybe a lot of it turned out to be no good for recycling because we were terrible about sorting the garbage from the good stuff, and all the valuable material was contaminated with food or chemicals or weird shit like garden hoses and Christmas lights that aren’t really recyclable. Maybe a bunch of it just wound up being dumped, or burned. Not even for electricity production, just to get rid of it. And maybe the way a lot of it did get recycled was via questionable ethical practices where workers hardly got paid anything and were exposed to toxic fumes and caustic chemicals without any safety equipment. Maybe the plastics produced were such a low quality that they weren’t even safe to use, and maybe that didn’t stop them from being used for food containers anyway.

Trash burning in an incinerator
Waste burning for electricity at an incinerator plant

For a while, the Chinese government was desperate enough to provide plastics and other materials to their booming economy that they were willing to overlook all that. But as the Chinese middle class grew, so did their own production of waste. Between that and the low quality of imported recyclables… unsorted and mixed with rotting food and dirty diapers… they eventually had their own garbage and pollution problem that even the Communist Party could no longer justify. So in 2018, China enacted their “National Sword” policy, which set strict standards on the quality of the recyclable goods they would accept as imports. If any cargo container of, say, mixed plastics, had more than a smidge of food waste mixed in it, or a little bit of glass or other non-plastic material, the whole thing would be rejected at the port. Waste exporters in the United States knew that most of what they had been shipping out would never meet those standards, and so the whole system dried up. No more Magical Chinese Portal, no more “easy” recycling for us. Now we have to do it ourselves.

Only, we no longer know how to. We’ve been dependent on China to literally do the dirty work for us for so long, we no longer even know how to sort our own trash. So… we just aren’t. We’re still mostly using what’s called “single stream” recycling, where everything goes in to one bin and it gets sorted out at a processing facility. This is easy for the consumer, but it’s a nightmare for the company doing the sorting. Americans engage in what’s called “wishful recycling” or “aspirational recycling”, where they put into their bins all sorts of things that they think should be recyclable, but which are not. Some of this, like bowling balls (seriously) can be easily removed, but other stuff like plastic grocery bags can wind around mechanical parts on the sorting line and physically jam up the works. Batteries chucked in to the recycling can actually catch fire during the sorting. And, of course, food waste gets all over everything and can contaminate it, making it unrecyclable or more expensive to recycle.

Recycling is harder than you’d think

The end result of this sloppy mess is that it can be less profitable to actually recycle materials, especially plastic, than to burn it for electricity. That’s right. Your local waste management company may be lying to you. You’ve been doing your duty and recycling as much as you can. You’ve even felt pretty good about doing your part. But despite that, there’s a chance it’s getting incinerated anyway. Some companies are picking out the most valuable materials, or the easiest to process, and whatever they don’t want to mess with just gets set on fire. Sometimes that can amount to 80% of the recycling stream being sent to the incinerator. It’s crazy, almost shocking, especially when you’ve been basing your purchasing decisions on the notion that all the packaging can just be recycled. You had zero guilt about all those plastic bottles because you put them in the recycling. But in truth… who knows?

We can do better. The obvious place to start would be to begin sorting out the different types of plastic and other materials at home, aka “multi-stream recycling”. It’s unfortunately a lot harder to get people to do this than you’d expect. Once you get past more than two or three rules to remember, people don’t want to bother. Remember, we already have trouble getting people to not throw literal shit into the recycling. Now try to get Americans to separate #1 plastic from #2. We have to find ways to make recycling easy for people to do, as well as ways to educate them on how to do it and why it matters. Maybe we also find some legal or financial incentives to encourage it, or to discourage throwing stuff in the garbage. It’s hard, but it can be done. There are various examples of cities and countries around the world that have done a lot better at this than we do. It just takes effort.

Mixed recycling at sorting facility
Mixed recycling at a sorting facility

We could also implement, on the national scale, the bottle deposit programs that some states have. Called “bottle bill” programs, these are the programs where drinks that come in plastic bottles have an extra 5 or 10 cents tacked on to their cost. You can then bring the empty bottles to the grocery store (or perhaps some other designated location), where you get that money back. If you instead throw those bottles away, you’re throwing money away… money which actually then goes to fund the deposit program. This has arguably been successful in many places, encouraging people to not only recycle, but to ensure that the recycled materials are of a consistent quality and relatively free of contamination. The success of these programs varies, however, and the beverage industry dislikes having a perceived tax on their products. While the effectiveness of these “bottle bill” programs are variable and often unclear, it’s certainly worth considering as part of the overall solution.

I, for one, welcome our recycling robot overlords

Beyond that, we can do better at the processing facilities. There’s special machinery that can sort a high percentage of some materials automatically. There are robots that can pick plastic bottles out of garbage as it goes by on a conveyor, for instance. But this kind of infrastructure is a big investment and takes a lot of money. When your profit margins are slim anyway, that’s a tough sell. If it remains cheaper to send material to the landfill or the incinerator, there will continue to be a profit motive to cherry pick what is actually recycled and waste the rest. Again, government regulation may play a role here. Landfills are often subsidized, as a way to encourage their use over illegal dumping. Maybe the time for those subsidies is past. Maybe recycling plants should be subsidized instead. If the incentives shifted, the behavior of companies could move towards actually recycling more material.

Or, here’s a crazy idea: maybe the profit motive isn’t a good fit for recycling at all. Maybe recycling should be a public service provided by government, regardless of the cost. For-profit businesses are doing nearly all of our recycling right now, and only actually recycling part of it. Subsidies could help, sure. But if you take away the need to make a profit altogether, it stands to reason you could get a lot more of it taken care of. There’s always issues with getting government to do things as well as private businesses do, but if the end result is dramatically improving how much waste we recycle, it might be worth the cost and headache.

Plastic is the devil

In the recycling world, plastic is the mother-fucking devil. Most everything else is easier to recycle and more profitable. But many types of plastic require special equipment or expensive procedures to recycle them. The commonly recycled #1 and #2 varieties degrade when you recycle them, so they often aren’t turned back in to #1 and #2 products. Instead, they are “downcycled” into lower grade plastics used for things like synthetic fleece or carpeting. So no matter how much you recycle plastic, there’s still going to be a demand for “virgin” plastics made from oil in order to make those higher grade materials.

Because of this, there are efforts being made to develop new technology to chemically recycle plastics using various methods. Some methods can break plastics down into base materials for making entirely new “virgin” plastics, as well as other materials used in the chemical industry. Some can create diesel fuel from plastics. There’s even some mad geniuses who are turning waste plastic into carbon nanotubes, for which there is a growing demand in physics and engineering research. These methods of chemical recycling often don’t require clean scrap plastic, so the material they accept can be contaminated with food. This has the potential to really close that loop in combination with mechanical recycling, so that eventually most plastics could be made from recycled plastic.

Bale of plastic bottles
Bale of plastic bottles, ready for recycling. Photo by Grendelkhan, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

There’s some concerns with chemical recycling, however. Perhaps the most obvious is that using plastics to create diesel fuel isn’t really in line with the concept of having a green economy. They claim that it’s more energy efficient to create diesel in this way than to make it from crude oil, but even so, that still means you’re creating more fossil fuels that contribute even more to climate change. The other big concern is the energy and carbon footprint of the chemical recycling. It’s not entirely clear what that will ultimately be, as these technologies are still being developed, but it sounds like it may take a decent chunk of energy to do it. If that’s all done using renewable energy, then maybe it makes sense. But if in the end you are creating as much carbon dioxide in the recycling process as it takes to make the plastics from scratch, then it’s not clear if it’s really worth it.

How to stop recycling like a noob

Uggh. I told you it was a big fucking mess. Well, what can we do about it? There actually are a few easy things we can all try to do. First off, remember the green trilogy of “reduce, reuse, recycle”? It’s usually associated with the symbol of three arrows forming a triangle. We tend to think of this as a cycle, with each step being equal, but it’s really more of a hierarchy. Reducing is king, that’s where the bang for your buck is at. Recycling is more the measure of last resort.

We really need to focus more on reducing our consumption. With plastics, that means Americans need to focus a lot more on not buying so much literal garbage to begin with. Stop buying food in plastic containers if you can find an alternative. Really, before you buy anything made of plastic or packaged in plastic, consider if you really need it or if there’s a better alternative. We can also choose to buy more recycled plastic when we do buy it. Look for packaging that says it’s made from recycled post-consumer plastic. That’s industry speak for “Shit that you put in the blue bin” as opposed to companies recycling their own scrap plastics. Businesses respond to money above all else, so spend your dollars in a way that encourages less plastic packaging.

recycling sorting line
Recycling sorting line which looks super fun. Photo by Ignácio Costa, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

However, the burden isn’t all on us consumers. In fact, the biggest problem with recycling in general, is that it has put all the blame for waste on us. We’ve been led to believe that it’s our fault for buying so much stuff and throwing so much away. But we didn’t ask for plastic bottles and shrink-wrapped everything. We didn’t request that it become nearly impossible to buy groceries without having to fill up the recycle bin afterwards. Corporations pushed cheap plastic packaging on us, and then when we said it was a problem, they said, “Yes, it’s a problem all right… your problem.”

Screw that

Those decisions can be reversed. Companies could choose to be more responsible for the waste they produce. Alternatives can be found, both in packaging and in the types of products we consume. We have to find ways to make industry make these hard decisions. We need to persuade them to spend the money on changing their own bad habits, rather than putting all the blame on us. Not only does this help remove a bit of the guilt we may have about being wasteful, it’s also just practical. You’re never going to be able to reach everyone with the message of how important it is to recycle. In this era of anti-science politics, many people are going to resist that message anyway. But if you don’t give people the option, if we can no longer buy soda in plastic bottles, for example, then problem solved. We wouldn’t need to worry about recycling plastic, because we reduced it at the source.

Burning trash pile
When there’s no better alternatives, people just burn it in piles. Photo by Sumaira Abdulali, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

So, how do we accomplish that? It’s gonna be hard, unfortunately. Once again, government regulation could possibly play a role. I already mentioned “bottle bills.” There are other ways government could encourage better behavior. For instance, we could offer tax breaks for companies that drastically reduce the amount of plastic they produce, or that use only recycled materials in their packaging. If that’s a carrot, then maybe we could consider a stick, such as taxing plastic packaging. Couple this with the efforts I mentioned above, where consumers encourage companies to behave better by choosing to spend their money on less wasteful products. The point is to create a business environment where it simply becomes more profitable to stop using plastic. Do that, and this shit will mostly take care of itself. Not because the CEOs suddenly become granola-munching hippies, but because they won’t want to cancel their membership in their exotic-sports-car-of-the-month club.

So. Be better at recycling, yes. But also, speak with your money and your buying habits. Or just speak. Ask your local government how they can discourage waste or improve recycling. Ask your state legislators to consider tax incentives for less wasteful products and companies. Tag companies in social media posts about reducing plastic waste. Go on a fucking anti-plastic crusade. No one tactic is going to solve our plastic problem. We’re going to have to come at it from different angles. Nibble at it from both ends, like those dogs eating spaghetti. Work on both consumer habits, as well as the behavior of corporations, and maybe one day they’ll slurp it all up and meet in the middle and make a big smooch, and then the puppies will fall out of their mouths, because that’s how babies are made. Or whatever happened. I don’t really remember that movie, but I’m going with mouth puppies.

MORE READING:
Politico How Recycling is Killing the Planet
The Guardian Plastic Recycling is a Myth
Wired The World’s Recycling is in Chaos
Green America Americans Are Really Bad at Recycling
ABC We’re recycling but garbage keeps piling up

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