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By Erin Biba

Everything you think you know about recycling is probably wrong. Since the slogan “reduce, reuse and recycle” became part of the cultural lexicon in the 1970s during the birth of Earth Day when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the concept of recycling has become the go-to refrain for the average citizen casually — but not acutely — concerned about the environment. The problem is, if you ask people to explain what happens to their waste after they throw it in the bin, almost no American is able to answer. And that’s because our perception of recycling in the U.S. and the realities of actual recycling do not match up.

The concept of recycling has become the go-to refrain for the average citizen casually — but not acutely — concerned about the environment.

The truth is, there’s no universal form of recycling across the country. Every city and state has its own regulations and methods that govern how and what it recycles. In some places, recycling is mostly effective and efficient. In other places, some or all of what is thrown into a recycling bin ends up in in landfills or garbage incinerators. And even though the EPA estimates that about 75 percent of waste produced in the U.S. is capable of being recycled, the U.S. recycling rate has plateaued at about 34 percent — and that hasn’t changed since 2010. The sad fact is that, even though most of us believe in the theoretical benefits of recycling, we may not be participating efficiently — or at all.

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Before we get into the problems with recycling in the U.S. it’s important to point out that, though we could be doing a much better job, even a little bit of inefficient recycling is better than no recycling at all. According to the EPA, Americans are still returning about 68 million tons of raw materials back into the manufacturing market every year. And that means, in the case of paper for example, fewer trees cut down, less carbon burned hauling logs to mills, less energy and water used to pulp those trees and an overall net gain for the environment. Recycling is good. Recycling works. And we need to keep recycling.

But raw material is the key word here when looking at the benefit of even the most efficient recycling system. Recycling isn’t a nebulous humanitarian environmental practice of collecting waste. It is, actually, a business. It’s a commodities market that we all participate in. It produces paper pulp and plastic pellets and glass shards and other materials that are used by manufacturers to make goods. So even in the best recycling systems the goods you send to the recycler to be processed are only going to become new products if there’s a market demand for them. (For example, is there a bottling factory in your community that needs glass or a paper mill nearby that needs pulp?)

And not all recycling plants are actually capable of processing all materials. (For example, foam containers and thin film plastic, like plastic bags or saran wrap, are actually very difficult or impossible to recycle and end up in landfills even if you put them in the recycling bin.) Just like any market the need for commodities is variable. Sometimes there’s no one around that currently needs glass, for example, and so recyclers will either store those products for later sale or just send them off to the landfill or incinerator.

This means you think you’ve recycled 100 percent of the recyclable goods you buy when, in fact, you probably haven’t.

This means you think you’ve recycled 100 percent of the recyclable goods you buy when, in fact, you probably haven’t. “Like wheat and oil and gold, recycled commodities like aluminum, paper, metals, and plastics have value and those fluctuate,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. “To run a recycling program you don’t want to keep changing the rules all the time.”

And that means you end up having consumers knowingly and unknowingly participating in what Ruth Abbe, president of Zero Waste USA, calls wishcycling. “We wish it was recyclable, so we recycle it anyway,” even if it’s just going to end up in a landfill, she says.

But these are problems that exist in all systems, including the most efficient ones. And it’s true that in some places in the U.S. our processes are working well — big cities like San Francisco on the West Coast claim to be recycling about 70 percent or more of their waste (though this is hard to measure and these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt). In regions like Boulder, Colorado and Saint Paul, Minnesota for example, recycling companies are independent non-profits who operate with the mission of recycling as much as they can. But in other parts of the country, especially in East Coast cities like Washington D.C., the recycling system is run by large waste hauling monopolies where the focus isn’t on recycling, it’s on profit.

“The reason why recycling costs so much is because the big waste management companies realized recycling was taking away from their profits. Recycling is their enemy,” says Neil Seldman, director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. “That’s the achilles heel of big waste.”

According to Seldman, these companies are doing the majority of the country’s recycling while also operating the majority of our landfill business. And because they’re more focused on the less expensive process of filling their landfills, they’ve convinced the cities they work with to move away from recycling systems that process smaller, more manageable amounts of recyclables on several lines (meaning the waste is better sorted) to processing huge amounts on single lines, which is less expensive, less complicated and allows them to process a larger volume — but creates more contaminated less-desirable end materials.

And while places like Minneapolis and Saint Paul are sending 90 percent of their high quality processed raw materials to manufacturers inside the state, these big companies in places like Washington DC are carting waste to facilities far outside the cities they collect from and then mostly shipping their low quality contaminated processed materials out of the country to China.

“In the 1990s, about five percent of U.S. cities used single stream recycling. By 2010, 75 percent of cities were using it. Recycling is stagnating in the US not because people don’t want to recycle, it’s because the structure is the least efficient form of recycling,” says Seldman.

To compound this problem, China has recently passed laws that will ban most recycling from outside the country — specifically plastic. Says Seldman: “The materials were so contaminated the cost of labor went up so much China couldn’t afford to clean our materials. That’s not the fault of recycling, it’s the fault of cities going to single stream. It's been a disaster.” And that means cities around the U.S. are now either going to have to give up recycling altogether (which some, like Deltona, Florida, have indicated they will do) or convert their recycling processes over to more efficient systems, which Seldman says is the more likely future.

According to the NRDC’s Goldstein, there are a few ways that the U.S. can recover from the loss of China: “One thing that is needed is greater investment by private industry in, as well as government incentives for, new processing capacity for recyclables. (Some of that is happened, 16 paper mills have recently announced plans to expand to handle mixed paper and cardboard generated by US recycling programs.) And there is the failure of the federal government, as well as most states and cities, to step up their procurement of products made with recycled materials. That too would stimulate demand and therefore enhance the economics of municipal recycling operations.”

So where does that leave the American public? For starters, it means we have to stop thinking that recycling is “enough” when it comes to the planet.

But even if all our cities are pushed by China to become more efficient and more innovative — and even if our recycling rates start to climb again — we’ll still always have the issue of market variability.

So where does that leave the American public? For starters, it means we have to stop thinking that recycling is “enough” when it comes to the planet. In truth, recycling is arguably less important than re-using and reducing. Yes, without question recycling is an essential aspect of a healthy planet and clean environment. But it should also be our last resort.

“The big takeaway from the era that we’re in is that we really should be more mindful about what we’re purchasing. We shouldn’t depend on the fact that we can recycle it. First you have to reduce,” says Zero Waste’s Abbe.

Reducing our consumption of items that we will have to throw in the trash or the recycling bin — or completely replacing those items with products that we can reuse and not throw away at all — is a good way to offset the fact that recycling isn’t a magic bullet solution for the planet. The fewer items you have drop in the recycling bin, the less you have to worry about whether or not those items will be recycled efficiently or whether or not the commodities market is currently demanding them.

“The whole story is about consumption and how much Americans consume and how much we aspire to consume. This is the cornerstone of sustainability,” says the NRDC’s Goldstein. “If everybody in the world used as much energy and consumed as much materials as the average American does we wouldn’t be passing on to our children and grandchildren a sustainable world.”

In the end, even if a bottle or a can or a piece of paper is recycled, that doesn’t mean its impact is erased. It took valuable resources to create that object in the first place. So if recycling a piece of paper saves a tree, just imagine how many resources could have be saved if we never even needed to make that piece of paper to begin with.