Recycling in the U.S. is raised as one of the primary things citizens can do to improve the environment. Recycling your paper, plastics, and cans is likely something you’ve learned to do since you were young, but how much of that material actually gets recycled?
According to the Columbia Climate School, in 2017 only “66 percent of paper and cardboard was recycled, 27 percent of glass, and 8 percent of plastics were recycled.” Why is it that so little of what goes into the recycling bin actually gets through the system?
A primary problem is contamination. While recycling has been made relatively easy for the consumer, simply separating their assumed recyclables from their waste, many people don’t think to clean out the containers they are recycling. Detergent, sodas, food residue and grease all make recyclables contaminated and unable to be recycled.
Plastics already can only be recycled two times at most, and because many arrive contaminated, they cannot be recycled at all. Rinsing out any plastic bottles and other containers can help to prevent it from being discarded rather than recycled, but some items, such as greasy cardboard like pizza boxes, will not be able to be cleaned. It’s better to throw those in the garbage rather than trying to recycle.
Another issue is the confusion many people have about what can and cannot be recycled. Most cities have different regulations, so it’s worth checking what your local centers will accept. Many cannot recycle plastic bags and Styrofoam, and will send those materials to the landfill anyway.
Single stream recycling, the term for when all materials are thrown into the same bin, makes it much easier for the consumer, but it’s much less effective in the system. There’s not a very effective way to do this yet, but if you spend time on campus, you might have noticed the bottle and can recycling bins scattered across the university, as well as the paper recycling bin on the second floor of the library. Utilizing these helps the environment more than tossing these materials in the landfill.
Plastic is convenient and can be incredibly helpful, and no consumer should be ashamed for using it. However, mindful consumption can help reduce unnecessary wastes.