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Recycling in the United States is broken


The recycling system in the United States is broken. By 2017, Americans produced an average of 4,51 pounds per day. While many Americans put their recyclables in the bins, a lot of them are not recycled. This article will discuss the reasons why and possible solutions.

Why recycling doesn’t work in the U.S.

When items are put in the wrong bin or a dirty container of food is placed into the recycling bin, many recyclables can become contaminated. Contamination may prevent the recycling of large quantities of material. Certain facilities can’t process certain materials.

Many items collected, such as yogurt containers, plastic takeout containers, and eating utensils, cannot be recycled. In most cases, they are incinerated or disposed of in landfills. waste energy plants are sometimes used for producing energy. However, they have in the past been linked with toxic emissions.


Landfills release carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Our oceans are awash in plastic waste.

China’s Ban

China recycled almost half the world’s waste materials for decades because it had a booming manufacturing industry and needed the materials to fuel it. In 2016, the U.S. exported 16 million tons each of paper, plastic, and metals to China. The truth is that 30 percent of the mixed recyclables ended up contaminated with non-recyclable materials, never recycled, and polluted China’s oceans and countryside. Each year, an estimated 1,3 to 1,5 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans off China’s coastline.


China’s National Sword Policy banned imports of plastics, rubber, and other materials not meeting new, stricter purity standards in 2018. In 2018, the U.S. sent 68,000 containers of plastic waste to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. The U.S. then diverted its plastic waste to other countries, shipping 68,000 containers to Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand in 2018. These countries later banned the import of plastic waste. The U.S. continues to ship over 1 million metric tonnes of plastic waste overseas every year, many times to countries that are already flooded with it. Experts estimate that between 20 and 70 percent of plastic meant for recycling abroad is not usable, so it is discarded. One report revealed that plastic waste shipped to Southeast Asia caused contaminated water, crop deaths, respiratory illness due to toxic fumes, and organized criminal activity.

When the Market Disappeared

The U.S. Recycling Industry was ruined without the Chinese market.

Nilda Meza, director of Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development’s Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program, said that the economics were challenging. If there is no market for recycled materials, the numbers don’t work for both these facilities and cities. They need to sell them to recover their costs for collection and transport, which are usually only a fraction of those costs.


In the United States, processing facilities and municipalities have had to either pay more for recycling or just throw away waste. Stamford made $95,000 in 2017 by selling recyclables. In 2018, the city had to spend $700,000. Bakersfield used to make $65 per ton on its recyclables. After 2018, the city had to pay $24 a ton for them to be removed. Franklin, NH used to be able to sell recyclables at $6 a tonne; now, they charge $125 a tonne to recycle or incinerate the material.

Municipalities that couldn’t afford more money have reduced their recycling programs. Over 70 municipalities have stopped curbside recycling. Some of these programs were reinstituted following public protests.

What is the state of recycling in America today

The U.S. recycling industry was so dependent on China that it never developed a domestic recycling infrastructure. This meant there was no efficient or economical way to recycle when the market closed.

“The current system has recycling as a service competing for funding, and often losing, for other local services such as schools, police, etc.,” said Stephanie Kersten Johnston, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Sustainability Management Masters Program and director of circular initiatives at The Recycling Partnership. Without dedicated investment, recycling infrastructure will not be enough. We also need to solve the current simple math equation — recycling is not worth it when landfilling is cheap.


The U.S. has no federal recycling program, which makes the situation even more complex. Kersten-Johnston said that recycling decisions are currently made by 20,000 communities across the U.S. Each community makes its own decisions about what and how to recycle. Many stakeholders have different interests and are converged around this issue. We need to find common ground and set goals in order to avoid working together against each other. This means that companies will work with recyclers and haulers as well as manufacturers, consumers, and communities to achieve progress.

What is actually recycled?

According to the EPA, only 94.2 million tons of municipal waste generated in 2017 by Americans were recycled or composted.

Glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely; paper can be recycled five to seven times before it’s too degraded to make “new” paper. Plastics, however, are only recyclable once or twice, as the polymers break down during recycling. Metal and glass can be recycled forever; writing can be recycled five to seven more times before it is too damaged to be recycled into “new” pieces; plastics can only be recycled once or twice, as the polymers are broken down during the recycling process.


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Jane S. King

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