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What you need to know about recycling

Where we are at with recycling in the US

What you need to know about recycling

Skeptics and cynics beware. A growing number of initiatives are gaining momentum in the area of sustainability, and it is evident that our actions and attitudes as informed consumers and concerned citizens are influencing the forces of change.  Numerous public-private partnerships are underway with ambitious goals that will positively impact society and the planet. This shows that grassroots activism works and that we must continue to speak out, evaluate political candidates and switch to brands that are committed to sustainability.

Recycling is one area where widespread public support is leading to positive systemic improvements through public-private partnerships.

We have a long history of recycling in the US, what has changed are the products we buy.  The proliferation of plastic has led to a throwaway culture which causes us to use things for shorter periods of time and create more waste.

The need to consume less is obvious but the situation is complicated.  If companies continue to produce cheap products that don’t last long, the consumer is incentivized to keep buying more.  Brands need to be responsible for creating fewer things that are more responsibly made.

Currently, the cost and responsibility for recycling falls primarily on citizens.  We are responsible for cleaning and separating our recyclables and our municipal tax dollars pay for the collection and processing of them.

Since 2018, recycling has become too big a problem for local governments to handle.  Before 2018, we outsourced our recycling to China.  We shipped them tons of paper and plastic waste over the decades because it was cheaper and easier than building and managing recycling facilities here in the US.  In 2018, China stopped accepting our recycling in part because it was too contaminated or dirty to process. 

Now we have tons of recyclable waste accumulating and an insufficient system to handle it. There is no national recycling system and capabilities vary from community to community.    Some have state of the art facilities while some can only process #1 and #2 plastics. All other plastic (#3-#7) are thrown into the landfill. 

Luckily, there is new legislation that has a more holistic approach.  The concept behind it is called extended producer responsibility (EPR) and it would make corporations responsible for the end use of their product by making them pay for their collection and recycling.  A percentage of their packaging would also be required to contain post consumer waste (already recycled content), therefore, creating a market for recycled materials.

A recent article in the New York Times explains that this bill, introduced by NY state legislators, is “designed to get money flowing back into New York’s recycling programs, with the prospect of upgrading trash-sorting technology and creating green jobs. It also provides incentives for consumer brand owners to use more recyclable materials and reduce their packaging overall.”

Legislation like this would make it less profitable to use disposable materials and hasten a shift toward a circular economy.  Not only is New York considering this proposal but California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine and Oregon are considering similar legislation.

Brands are even acting on their own to chip in. Nespresso has reached out to NYC’s recycling facility to pay for the equipment needed to extract aluminum from its coffee pods.  Fashion companies like Madewell, H+M and Patagonia have take back programs where their used products can be resold online or donated to be recycled into new clothing.

NGOs like The Recycling Partnership work with private organizations to create public recycling solutions.  They get private funding from companies like Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Keurig and offer grants to local municipalities to expand recycling infrastructure and increase recycling capability for materials beyond #1 and #2 plastics like plastic bags and films.

One of their initiatives, the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, aims to increase the amount of #5 plastic that is recycled.  Currently, very little is done to recycle #5 plastic even though it is the second most commonly produced.  Drinking straws, yogurt containers, coffee pods pudding cups are made of #5 plastic.  Recycling it would have a greater impact than recycling #2 plastics.

Beyond the environmental impact a more robust national recycling system would have, The Recycling Partnership claims it would also create 370 thousand jobs. People would be needed to drive trucks, provide maintenance, sort, manage facilities, and sell the recycled materials back into the market.

The beauty of this approach is that the shared responsibility will make the system more efficient. Citizens need to continue to do their part to clean and sort their waste.  Manufacturers are incentivized to create greener products and packaging and our elected officials would facilitate the expansion and regulate to ensure compliance.  Everyone does their part, and in the end, everyone wins.

So much more is happening and a lot more needs to be done. We will be giving you more examples of what other sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, and technology are doing to create the impact we need for people and the planet.

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