Recycling in the U.S. is broken. In 2017, only a third of our waste was either recycled or composted. The reasons are many: we have lost the markets we used to have when we were shipping our recyclables to China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Kenya and Senegal to name a few countries which used to take our plastics, and often our glass, cardboard and paper. One waste management executive warned that many cities will suffer because collected material now “doesn’t have a place to go.” Hundreds of US cities killed or scaled back their recycling programs — as of early 2020, nearly 90 municipalities have canceled their curbside recycling programs altogether. WasteDive has compiled a timeline of the changes to recycling procedures in all 50 states.
The lack of a market absolutely upended our recycling industry. We can still find a market for some items (cardboard, for example, if it isn't contaminated with Styrofoam) but, for the most part, municipalities now pay to have the rest removed from their recycling centers. We don’t make it easy for these centers, throwing non-recyclable items in with recyclable items, contaminating one category of recyclables with another. The result is that much ends up in the ocean, in landfills, or incinerated. Incineration and waste-to-energy plants have been associated with toxic emissions, while landfills emit a slew of harmful pollutants — carbon dioxide, methane, volatile organic compounds, and others. Oceans are filled with plastic waste.
National recycling policy may provide relief and there a handful of notable bills to watch: RECYCLE Act, RECOVER Act, Save Our Seas 2.0, Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, ZERO WASTE Act. Find a legislative tracker of these bills at WasteDive.
Another solution revolves around the circular economy, specifically, the circular plastics economy in which more plastic is reused, and bought. Many consumer brands such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé have announced plans to use recycled plastic in their manufacturing.