Recycling in America is a mess. The two experts I interviewed for this piece, “could not agree more” with that statement. I don’t know what to throw into my grey, recycling tote. I’m not alone, most people are confused about what’s accepted. Which of the nine forms of plastic are accepted by your local recycling program? Does your city take compost?
Frankly, I’ve let recycling slip out of my sights. But taking a look at it over the past few weeks, yes, recycling is a mess. Thanks to long-time EcoNet reader, George Reis, for flagging this and asking EcoNet for clarification.
In America, we divert about a third of our waste, a rate that has been stagnant for the past 3 – 4 decades. Leading states include California, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Oregon, and Washington. America suffers from a balkanized recycling stance: There are some 9,800 different programs with different rules across the country. Nothing is standardized. As a result, there is widespread confusion, contamination, and a stagnant national recycling rate.
A major factor in U.S. recycling is single stream recycling… a system adopted in many states that is based on the premise that the public is hapless and will never do a good job of sorting recyclables… and that they need to just throw it all together. That leads to consumers burdening the recycling stream with non-recyclable materials. The mixed collection creates a false positive for the public. Consumers think they no longer have responsibility for what they shop for and what they buy, any consumer guilt assuaged by a hefty load in the recycling tote.
Kreigh Hampel is the director of recycling for the City of Burbank, California. He’s left me with an image… an image of the conveyor belt at his center. A mountain of “recyclable” material the size of a two-story house feeds the line where workers pick and sort. Kreigh says that the conveyor belt never stops, workers on the line run a marathon every day, with a million pulls every day grabbing bottles, cans, cardboard, and more and more plastics. There’s been an escalation in complexity of materials… and as a result, what’s left over at the end of the line, the “residuals” rise.
After researching the issue, I am alarmed, discouraged. And I resolve to tighten my own act… to buy durable, to avoid packaging, and to increase practices of re-use and re-purposing. Furthermore, I am no longer going to be part of the contamination problem that stymies the system. And beyond personal actions it’s time for us all to get active on this issue… to demand manufacturer responsibility for what become our gross wastes, to seek means to harmonize the recycling systems in our country, and to make it simple and effective. Join me.