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Re-evaluating Recycling in the United States

Image via Scott McIntyre/The New York Times

Consider the life of a disposable plastic plate. If the plate was used in New York City, it should go in the recycling bin only after it has been rinsed off. If it was used in Providence or Boston, it should be thrown directly into the trash, as these cities do not recycle plastic plates. And if the plate was used in my hometown of Fresno, California, it should be recycled as long as it is not made of Styrofoam, in which case it should be tossed into the trash. The point is that recycling is exceedingly complicated and often confusing. But extending producer responsibility laws to shift recycling responsibility from consumers to producers and more effectively regulate recycling labels could help Americans recycle cleaner, quicker, and better. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average recycling contamination rate is 25 percent, meaning that our landfills are full of recyclable items that cannot be repurposed or reused due to misplaced trash. Considering that the United States produced approximately 35.7 million tons of plastic in 2018—most of which consisted of plastic containers and packaging—the need for municipal and corporate recycling reform is urgently needed.

For decades, America sold 700,000 tons of recycling to China. On the surface, it was a great trade: The US had too much plastic and paper, and China wanted recyclables to reuse for raw materials. Chinese businessmen and women became millionaires by buying US paper and plastic. However, much of the recyclables shipped into China were contaminated and never recycled, polluting the country’s land and oceans. Cracking down on environmental degradation, China passed the National Sword Policy in 2018, effectively banning most plastic imports. Suddenly, 700,000 tons of recycling had nowhere to go. The US recycling industry, having depended on Chinese markets to dispose of plastic for a quarter century, scrambled to find new markets. With too much plastic and no one to sell it to, communities curtailed collections, halted curbside pickup programs entirely, stockpiled plastics, or incinerated them. 

China’s ban on plastic imports exposed the weak, fragmented nature of the American recycling system. Without someone else to take our trash for us, we’ve been left to confront the issues of our own recycling system: confusing labels, conflicting rules, and a lack of standardization in recycling practices across states. Current practices lean on consumers to decode misleading labels, acronyms, and convoluted websites to figure out how and what to recycle. Take the “chasing arrows” logo, the universal recycling sign, for example: Within the triangle is a number from one to seven, denoting the kind of plastic the product is made of. A one or two in the middle of the arrows likely means the product is recyclable, but a four, which indicates plastic made of low-density polyethylene, means the item is not accepted in most curbside programs. Similarly confusing, plastic containers must be clean, dry, and free of any other type of contamination to be recyclable. And even if an individual has meticulously rinsed, sorted, and dried their recyclables, he or she must contend with the fact that every municipality has different recycling rules, such as in the aforementioned plastic plate example. 

The chance of error at every step of the recycling process means that the majority of plastics are simply dumped. The United Nations Environmental Program estimated that only nine percent of all plastics ever manufactured have been recycled. This mounting issue goes beyond the individual. There is simply too much trash for consumers to single-handedly recycle their way out of our mounting garbage problem. 

Thus, state governments should look towards implementing “extended producer responsibility” laws to shift the responsibility for recycling and sustainability from consumers to producers. Regulations that would charge producers a fee for recycling programs based on the weight of packaging, type of material used, and ease of recycling would give companies an incentive to repackage their products to be more sustainable. Maine and Oregon are two of nearly a dozen states that passed such laws in 2021. In these states, manufacturers, instead of taxpayers, pay for the cost of recycling. Other extended producer responsibility laws require paint companies to develop and oversee paint stewardship programs to make it easier for consumers to recycle unused paint or require mattress manufacturers to provide consumers more accessible methods of disposing of old mattresses. In California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, the Mattress Recycling Council manages the mattress program and recycles approximately two million mattresses annually. Extended producer responsibility laws allow states to be creative with sustainable solutions and regulate company practices. 

Though these laws are just becoming widespread in the US, extended producer responsibility programs are already pervasive throughout Europe and have experienced great success. Ireland, one of many European countries with extended producer responsibility recycling laws, saw its recycling rate—the amount of recyclable materials that are actually recycled—rise from 19 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2017 after implementation of the program, as compared to America’s current recycling rate of 32 percent. Specific policies of Ireland’s program include legally requiring owners of “end-of-life” vehicles to deliver the vehicle to an Authorized Treatment Facility where parts can be responsibly recycled, and requiring farm plastics to be properly collected, stored, and reused. Similar programs could be implemented in the United States to reduce the amount of wasted auto parts and improve the sustainability of farming practices in agricultural areas. Additionally, European countries with extended producer responsibility laws boast stronger recycling programs overall. Collection programs in countries with these laws remained resilient through China’s plastic importations ban and the 2020 pandemic, while US local governments and recycling processors defaulted and curtailed many recycling programs altogether. 

State governments should also move to regulate the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol on packaging, as it is widely used on products that are not recyclable and misinforms consumers. California is a pioneer in this area. In the state, companies are banned from using the arrows symbol unless it is proven that the material is recyclable in most California communities and can be reused to make new products. Using phrases like “ecologically sound,” “earth friendly,” and “green product” must also be backed up with proper documentation. Regulations like these prevent manufacturers from “greenwashing” their products to mislead consumers into believing that their products are sustainable, instead helping consumers learn what can and cannot be recycled. Furthermore, restrictions on the use of the chasing arrows symbol disincentivizes corporate investment in packaging that cannot be recycled and forces the development of new, more sustainable technologies. 

Communities and individuals cannot fix the recycling crisis on their own by reusing plastic bags and rinsing out food containers. The fight for a greener planet is a team effort. Larger, systemic change on the municipal and state level is critically needed to push the US towards a more sustainable future—one that does not result in shipping contaminated plastics to other countries or letting them pile up in landfills at home.