Wildly popular with consumers, recycling in the USA is in crisis right now, particularly for plastics. Many of the items we try to recycle end up in landfills.
A recent KAKE news project tracked the recycling crisis… literally. KAKE staff attached GPS trackers to four different plastic bags, then recycled those bags at four different Wichita retail stores. One bag went on a long journey to Malaysia. One was being held at a local recycling center. The last two went to the landfill.
Plastic bags must be recycled separately: just one of many problems. Plastics do not mix well, so they should be sorted according to the number inside the triangle of arrows embossed on the item. Recycling plastic changes its properties, making it more dense and less flexible. This type of plastic definitely has its uses– one inventor in Ghana is turning recycled plastics into bricks that can be assembled into houses. Recycled plastic’s tough, heavy, rugged qualities also make good toys. Unfortunately, much of the demand for plastic is because it is lightweight and flexible. Recycled plastic lacks these qualities, and plastic gets harder and harder to recycle each time it is processed. Recent studies found that fewer than 5% of cups and containers and only 21% of plastic bottles are actually recycled. There are many reports of plastics being sent from recycling centers to landfills.
For years, U.S. recycling was sent to China for processing, filling shipping containers for their return trip. However, China imposed a ban on many imported recyclables starting in 2018, including paper and plastic. One reason cited was that the recyclables being sent there were not clean– recyclable and non-recyclable items were mixed together, and many were contaminated, particularly with food waste. This last is also the reason why the University of Kansas recently curtailed some recycling programs. In addition, the price for recyclable materials has plummeted. The California Attorney General is investigating the plastics industry for misleading consumers about the recyclability of plastic over decades, a deception known as “greenwashing.”
Consumers need to clean our recyclables. Fast food containers and other items contaminated with food waste are not recyclable. This handy guide called “Recycling 101” from Johnson County lists recycling dos and don’ts.
If you drop your recyclables off at a recycling center, clean and sort them first. If you place a bin outside for curbside collection, follow the instructions provided. Consumers should avoid “aspirational recycling,” or throwing items in recycling containers hoping for the best. These items must be removed, deposited into the trash and hauled to the landfill, raising costs. Better to throw them away at home.
It is also time to reduce uses of these items in the first place. For example, Lawrence and Wichita were both considering bans on single-use plastic bags before they were preempted by the Kansas Legislature. Plastic production has grown from 1.5 million tons annually in the 1950s to 300 million tons today. Substitute reusable materials when possible. When it is not, placing non-recyclable materials in the trash to be deposited in a proper landfill is still a good alternative to littering, illegal dumping, and illegal burning.
While recycling items like aluminum and precious metals is highly valuable, other materials have little value as scrap. Many end up in the landfill despite our good intentions. Just throwing everything in the recycling bin is not working. We need to re-think our interconnected systems of packaging, production, and waste from top to bottom.