When you hear the slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” which of the three R’s rings as most important in your mind? If it’s “recycle,” you’re not alone. The importance of the third “R” is often focused on and overemphasized in media and advertising while the other two R’s are glazed over. What you might not know, however is that the United States actually has a major recycling problem.
It started in the 90’s…
Beginning in California in the 1990’s, many communities in the U.S. started to switch over to single-stream recycling systems. Single stream was meant to be a lower cost alternative to dual stream recycling, in which all recyclable materials like papers and plastics were mixed into one collection truck and later sorted at MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) rather than each material being sorted individually by the household. This newfound ease and low entry barrier resulted in more and more households recycling, and according to the EPA, a 35% increase in the recycling of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in 2017 compared to the 6% of MSW that was being recycled in 1960. In 2018, this decreased to 32.1%.
Despite the overall increase in recycling however, single stream has come with an unintended consequence: many of the bales that leave our recycling facilities are contaminated. This contamination is most often caused by food and liquid waste, and broken glass. Glass is especially a problem in single stream recycling because it gets broken during collection, long before it reaches an MRF. These broken pieces are difficult to process, which results in them getting mixed into and ruining paper bales. WAMU’s “What’s with Washington” explains how bad this situation with glass recycling has become in DC.
Often, contaminants make their way into the recycling stream due to what has become known as “wishful recycling,” when people toss non-recyclables into the bins in hopes that they’ll be recycled anyway. This may stem back to the fact that many Americans are not properly educated on how our recycling system works or what can be recycled in their respective areas, despite the amount of emphasis that is placed on the importance of recycling.
At the same time that single stream kicked up in the 90’s, the U.S. had a recycling boom. But this boost of popularity that pushed the concept of recycling into mainstream culture was not a result of the work of environmental activists, but rather the mass advertising efforts made by companies like Chevron and DuPont. According to “How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled,” an NPR article from September of 2020, “[these] companies spent tens of millions of dollars…promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned, or in some cases, wound up in the ocean.” The fact of the matter is that most plastics cannot be efficiently recycled as they deteriorate in quality each time they are recycled.
In recent years, the problems surrounding the recycling system in the United States have only gotten worse. Before 2017, the U.S exported most of its recycling to China, as did many others around the globe, but that was until China implemented its National Sword policy. Unfortunately, China was receiving too much contaminated material that could not be used, so National Sword now enforces stricter rules on the imports of waste material and refuses to accept any recyclables that have more than 1% contamination. The U.S has scarcely been able to meet these requirements and has scrambled to find other places to send its recycling. These places are often poor or developing countries that can barely manage their own plastic waste, let alone someone else’s.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t recycle ever—if no one recycled, there would be no incentive for the system to be improved. In fact, there are even some companies, like Foxblocks with the help of its parent company, Airlite Plastics, that do what they can to reduce waste by recycling their scrap plastics for their own products. Depending on your location, you can still recycle metals, paper, and sometimes glass, all of which can be recycled more efficiently than plastic.
However, you may want to treat recycling as one of your last resorts. When you do recycle, research the rules for recycling in your area. Be mindful about what products go into your recycling bin, wash all dirty containers, and separate the bins by material. You can go a step further by taking these bins to different locations that specialize in recycling that specific material. It may seem like a lot, especially if you’re used to the single stream method of recycling, but these actions can contribute to making it easier for facilities to recycle more of what they receive by helping to reduce the amount of contaminated recyclables.
Focusing on the Other R’s
Before you think about throwing something away, or even recycling it, remember that the first two words in the slogan are “Reduce” and ‘Reuse.” These are two concepts that often go hand in hand. The logic is that if you don’t need it, then you should buy or use less. This goes for food, clothing, and other general products, as well as the water and energy you use within your home.
Consider how much you consume and cut back where it’s needed. For example, if food is going to waste at home, make note of what you do and don’t eat, and only buy as much as will be eaten before it goes bad. Anything that does still go uneaten might be able to be composted instead of being thrown away. You can cut back on water usage by taking shorter showers, putting sprinklers on timers, and washing your clothes only when they need it rather than after every wear. Energy can be saved by turning off lights when you don’t need them, unplugging cords to electronics when not in use, and switching to LEDs for your lights instead of incandescent bulbs.
When you do go shopping, purchase reusable products when you can. Try to steer clear of one-time-use products like solo cups and disposable plates or try to find biodegradable or compostable alternatives. You should also use what you already own for as long as you can before it falls apart (yes, even your clothing).
By implementing these two R’s, you can greatly reduce not only your contribution of waste, but also how much you even need to try to recycle. If that wasn’t motivating enough, they can also help you reduce the empty space in your wallet.
But Wait, There’s More!
Upcycling is my favorite alternative to recycling. It’s similar to the concept of reuse but takes it a step further. According to its definition, upcycling is “to reuse a material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.” Because of this, it’s also called “creative repurposing.”
The possibilities of what can be upcycled into what are only limited by your creativity (or perhaps your ability to follow a tutorial). In the case of old or unwanted clothing, especially if they aren’t in good enough condition to be given away or donated or sold to thrift stores and websites like thredUP, they can be converted into yarn, reusable shopping bags, children’s clothing, patches for quilts or Boro-inspired outfits, stuffed animals and more.
Glass containers like mason jars can be reused as drinking glasses or for homemade jellies and foods, and wide-mouthed containers can be used for candles. There are also plenty of ideas for art projects to turn old glass containers into planters, pen holders, and vases. Just remember to make sure to only use the glass you know is food-safe if you’re going to use them for anything consumable (and there are food-safe methods to take off those pesky labels).
Do you have an over-flowing pile of plastic grocery bags that you’ve been saving because you feel too guilty to throw them away? You’re in luck, because even these can be upcycled. Grocery bags can be turned into plarn (plastic yarn), and can be woven into things like baskets, table-mats, purses, and a wide variety of others. There are plenty of tutorials out there that explain how to make and dye plarn to get started.
“But what if I’m not the DIY type?” you may ask. Fear not, there are options for you, too. If you still like the idea of upcycling, you can send your old clothing to companies like Terracycle to be repurposed.