Are We Still Recycling Our Trash In America?
The U.S. plastics recycling industry is healthy and their message is clear: We need all the recycled containers you can send us, and more.
American recyclers have been forced to do more of the processing of plastics themselves now that it’s not so easy to outsource it to foreign markets in China, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Mali Maeder, Pexels
What You Put In Your Bin Matters
Recent news stories have highlighted the changing face of recycling around the world, creating confusion for consumers in the process. Are we still recycling in America, and does it make sense to do so?
You bet it does! What the headlines aren’t telling us is this: there are markets for our paper and plastic, just not in China. Other countries including India, Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam are buying the mixed paper China no longer wants, and that’s where much of what’s collected from Massachusetts is recycled into new products. The difference is it’s now a buyer’s market. The value of mixed paper has dropped from $75/ton to $5/ton. This means less revenue to offset the costs of processing our recyclables. The good news? It’s all still getting recycled.
Cardboard is mostly sold to paper mills in the U.S. or Canada, and multiple U.S. mills are expanding or re-opening to start taking scrap paper and cardboard. There’s good news with plastics, too. The U.S. plastics recycling industry is healthy and wants our soda bottles, milk jugs, yogurt cups and margarine tubs. Their message is clear: we need all the recycled containers you can send us, and more.
The silver lining (and maybe the irony) is that China’s National Sword program (banning the importation of solid waster) is bringing jobs and investment to the U.S. and enabling recycling companies to buy recycled materials that they previously had to compete with China for. Now jobs and investment in recycling are coming to America.
While market experts expect the value of recyclables to increase as material quality improves and domestic capacity expands, recycling is first and foremost about saving resources, conserving energy and reducing our dependence on landfills and incinerators. As the impact of climate change escalates, it’s critical to embrace the circular economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower our carbon footprint. Recycling does all of that, and it creates jobs.
Recycling is a service. Trucks, labor, fuel — none of that is free, but it’s a service worth paying for. It’s also a public good — like schools, public transit, parks and clean air. It’s hard to put a dollar value on the benefits for our community, because they’re invaluable.
WHAT HAPPENS TO WHAT I RECYCLE? WHERE DOES IT ALL GO? If recycling is a mystery to you, you’re not alone. Whether you place recyclables in a bin at your curb or take them to a community recycling center, they eventually wind up in the same place: one of several Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF) in Massachusetts.
Once at the MRF, the materials are loaded onto a series of conveyor belts for sorting. Workers attempt to remove non-recyclables — including plastic bags and bagged trash. Some of these items make it through and jam the sorting equipment. As the “good” recyclables — paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic containers — move along the conveyor belts, they get separated mechanically and crushed. The cleanly separated materials are compressed into bales and shipped to businesses that transform them into new items. Understanding the process helps all of us do a better job recycling.
WHAT CHANGES ARE HAPPENING WITH RECYCLING IN MASSACHUSETTS? Two related issues are having a major effect on recycling in Massachusetts. The first and most significant issue is that too many of us are putting things in our recycling bins that cause problems at recycling facilities. Things like plastic bags, diapers, trash, food waste, garden hoses, bowling balls, clothing, and the list goes on.
Because our recyclables aren’t clean enough, countries such as China are refusing to import our recyclables to make new products and packaging. Recyclables are a commodity and are subject to the laws of supply and demand. Less demand means lower value. All of this has a financial impact on our local communities.
To insure our recyclables find a second life, we all need to make a better effort to recycle smart and stick to the list of approved recycling items.
WHAT CAN I DO TO RECYCLE BETTER? Keep plastic bags out of household recycling. Maybe you’ve been putting your recyclables in plastic bags for years, but plastic bags, plastic wrap and other stretchable plastic cannot be recycled along with paper, cans, and bottles. In fact, plastic bags are the number one cause of ruined recyclables. If you use them to bag your recyclables, all your recyclables are treated as trash (exception: some Boston neighborhoods are allowed to use sturdy clear plastic bags for their recyclables). At the recycling sorting facility, plastic bags get caught in the machinery, causing work stoppage and worker injuries.
However, plastic bags and wrap are collected at many grocery stores. Next time you head to the supermarket, bring along your plastic bags and put them in the labeled recycling bin!
Stick to the list and only place approved recyclable items in recycling bins or carts. What belongs in your bin and what doesn’t? As a rule of thumb, remember: bottles, cans, jars, jugs, and paper. It’s easier than ever to get it right when you use the Smart Recycling Guide, which lists items accepted for recycling in every Massachusetts community. If it’s not on the list, check for separate drop-off locations by downloading and using our Recyclopedia app.
Keep it clean and make sure your recyclables are free of food and liquids. Rinse containers to remove food and drink residue. A little pizza grease on the box is okay, but pizza slices are not recyclable!
Spread the word! Once you learn how easy it is to recycle smart, tell your neighbors and friends so everyone can do their part.
CAN’T I TOSS ANYTHING WITH A RECYCLING TRIANGLE INTO THE BIN? ISN’T IT BETTER TO RECYCLE MORE AND PUT LESS IN THE TRASH? You sound like someone who wants to recycle as much as possible — which is great — but not every item with the recycling triangle can be recycled with the rest of your household items. In fact, some items with the recycling logo, like plastic bags, create real problems at the recycling facility because they get caught in machine gears causing work shutdowns, worker injuries, and increased recycling costs. These items may be recyclable elsewhere; check if a specific item is recyclable, and where to recycle it, by using the Recyclopedia feature at recyclesmartma.org.
RECYCLING IS MORE COMPLICATED THAN I THOUGHT. DO THE BENEFITS OF RECYCLING OUTWEIGH THE COST TO MY COMMUNITY? Yes! Recycling has helped cities and towns reduce their disposal costs, create jobs, and protect the environment by reducing the amount of trash we burn or bury. By placing only approved materials in your household recycling, you will be doing your part to improve the recycling effort that supports local jobs and preserves our environment.
Recycling Resources In All Six New England States
Find out about companies taking the lead with creative and proactive recycling efforts, plus learn everything you need to know about recycling in MASSACHUSETTS at RecycleSmartMA.org, an initiative of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Their handy Recylopedia feature tells you instantly whether an item is recyclable or not.
For RHODE ISLAND recycling information, visit the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation at www.rirrc.org with a complete A-Z of how to dispose of anything, plus plenty of tips, programs and support.
In CONNECTICUT, recyclect.com tells you what you can and can’t recycle with their RecycleCt Wizard search feature, plus a handy Beyond the Bin resource that answers “What do I do with____?” to guide you in responsibly disposing of non-recyclables or creatively finding a new use for something.
NEW HAMPSHIRE’S patchwork of local laws provides no central information site, although a guide for recycling at state parks is available at blog.nhstateparks.org. The Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA), www.nrra.net, based in New Hampshire, is a non-profit organization providing cooperative purchasing programs, educational resources and networking opportunities. It was founded in 1981 by four New Hampshire municipalities as a clearinghouse for current, up-to-date information in the general areas of waste reduction and recycling.
VERMONT’S Department of Environmental Conservation at dec.vermont.gov explains Vermont’s newly updated Universal Recycling Law and their Waste Not Guide for items banned from the trash, as well as clear, explicit instructions about what goes into Vermont blue recycling bins, plus contact information for your waste district or town.
MAINE, on their maine.gov recycling webpage, conveniently refers people to the RecycleSmartMA.org Recyclopedia for questions about what to recycle. It also links to www.terracycle.com for a comprehensive list of free national recycling solutions for hard-to-recycle waste streams.
Keeping plastic bags and plastic wrap out of household recycling is the most important thing you can do.
Recycle Smart Tips
- Include only glass bottles and jars, metal food and beverage cans, paper and flattened cardboard, and plastic containers.
- Empty and rinse all containers.
- No plastic bags, plastic wrap, or bagging your recycling in plastic bags.
- If in doubt, check the Recyclopedia at recyclesmartma.org to determine whether specific items should go in your recycle bin or not.
- Check out this comprehensive guide on e-waste recycling to help you dispose of computer and tech devices properly.
Dear EarthTalk: Since China stopped accepting American recyclables for processing in 2017, is it still worthwhile for us to even bother recycling here in the U.S.? —Jim M., Norfolk, VA
The short answer is yes, it’s still worthwhile for us to recycle, even if it’s not as easy and more expensive than it used to be — especially when you consider the costly and environmentally dubious alternative of creating new products out of all-virgin materials. That said, China’s decision to stop accepting most recyclables from other countries beginning in January 2018 did send shockwaves around the world. For the previous 25 years, China was gladly importing more than half of the world’s plastic garbage for reprocessing into new products.
It seemed like a win-win situation, but the Chinese started to tire of dealing with a deluge of soiled recyclables from abroad. Also, years of economic growth and rising consumption means the Chinese are now producing plenty of waste on their own; they no longer need to rely on waste imports to keep their recycling plants humming. It’s for these reasons that the Chinese government invoked its “National Sword” policy, banning the import of 24 types of solid waste and setting a much tougher standard for contamination levels on the recyclables it would accept. Waste handlers in the U.S. and other developed countries where landfill space is short were left in the lurch and forced to rethink how to move much of their “feedstock” along now that China is no longer willing to take it.
In the meantime, a few Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India) stepped up to fill the void by taking larger loads of our waste. But poorly run waste management practices and lack of government oversight lead to conditions where only about 10 percent of potentially recyclable waste sent to these countries gets recycled. According to a recent World Bank report, much of what doesn’t get recycled ends up in “unregulated dumps or is openly burned…[creating] serious health, safety and environmental consequences.” But more recently, many of these countries are now following in China’s footsteps by tightening up their own rules about what kinds of waste they are willing to accept.
These changes have put some U.S.-based recyclers out of business, but it may have strengthened those left standing, since they have been forced to find new ways of dealing with the waste streams they are responsible for collecting and processing. Instead of shipping it all off, they are recycling as much as possible themselves. While China’s National Sword program may have been a headshot to the American waste industry, the result might just be a greener, cleaner, more self-sufficient United States.
American consumers and businesses can help bolster recycling efforts by sorting waste appropriately — don’t mix soiled food containers in with recyclables, keep non-recyclable plastics out of the blue bins, etc. — and encouraging friends and neighbors to do the same so that more of what we do discard can live another day and provide other consumers with a guilt-free way to enjoy whatever came in that plastic bottle or cardboard box.
Dear EarthTalk: You don’t hear much anymore about the cutting of our forests to make paper. Has this destructive practice just moved overseas where we don’t have to confront it, or have increases in recycling in recent years made paper production less destructive? —J. W., Greenville, SC
Photo Caption: The forests of Indonesia are still falling to feed the world's demand for paper products. Credit: Tom Fisk, Pexels
It’s true that saving paper (and in turn saving trees) used to be a big discussion topic at home, school and office, but these days you don’t hear much about it. This is likely because paper recycling has become ubiquitous; most of us are now well versed in how to sort recyclable paper from other waste.
According to the American Paper and Forest Association (AF&PA), upwards of two-thirds of all paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling in 2018. What this means is that a lot of the paper we use now gets made with recycled materials that don’t cause more logging and deforestation.
A big player in this march forward has been the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international non-profit that sets standards on forest products and then certifies and labels those that meet the standards as eco-friendly. Another major factor has been the establishment of guidelines set forth and agreed to by 200 governmental and other entities in 2014’s New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), an international agreement to “end natural forest loss” by 2030.
Despite this progress, deforestation for paper still continues unabated in Indonesia and other parts of the developing world where government oversight is non-existent and profit incentives are too great for illegal loggers to ignore. Some 10 percent of global deforestation (a major driver of climate change) is due to logging for wood products including paper, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
UCS reports that clearing tropical forests and replacing them with mono-cultural plantations of so-called “fastwood” trees like acacia, partly to make virgin paper, accounts for more deforestation across Indonesia than more infamous environmental bogeymen like palm oil production and coal mining. “This is particularly harmful because about a quarter of fastwood plantations were cleared on carbon-rich peat soils,” reports UCS, “adding significantly to global warming pollution.”
Beyond recycled paper itself, there are some promising alternatives to wood pulp as a feedstock for paper production. Some well-known alt-paper feedstocks include fiber crops like bamboo, kenaf, hemp, flax and jute, agricultural scraps such as sugarcane bagasse, cornhusks or straw, and textiles leftover in the production of fabrics and rope. A newer entrant in the green paper alternatives playing field is calcium carbonate — literally rock dust — which is made by pulverizing construction waste and fusing it together with plastic before compressing it with massive rollers into its final paper-thin form.
What about, you might ask, the rapidly growing digital age we find ourselves in now? Isn’t that saving trees? Yes, but consider the electricity load of all the computers, tablets and phones, as well as the server farms and network switching facilities that keep your e-mail inbox full and your Facebook feed full of new content. They’re largely powered by coal and other fossil fuels. Our addiction to digital information might just be taking a larger toll on the planet than if we still got our information the old-fashioned way — from actual books, magazines, newspapers and printed reports.