Who killed American Recycling? It’s not who you think.
Homeowners are consuming more stuff than ever and with recycling dead, it’s all ending up in the trash.
Almost weekly I read where another US community has stopped recycling. So who killed recycling in America?
I grew up in the late 50’s and all us kids were natural recyclers. We went hunting for that elusive coke bottle along the side of the road because it was worth five cents. I even remember collecting the little rubber liners from under the Pepsi caps because they were worth a penny each. Our scout troop collected tons of newspaper for recycling too. Very little got wasted.
During the seventies and eighties recycling became more mainstream, and by the nineties, after decades of public-information campaigns, Americans were finally recycling in earnest. All of us knew how to interpret the various recycling symbols at the bottom of product containers.
Architects designed kitchens with recycling centers. Mom’s had separate bins at home for plastic, metal, cardboard and glass. Cans and milk jugs got washed out before being placed in the bins and even the little plastic ring around the necks of bottles had to come off.
Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country had separate bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you could be fined if inspectors discovered that you hadn’t recycled appropriately.
Quality products sell, junk does not
As a result of the care put into sorting and collection, the bulk of our recycling product was fairly clean. Clean product in the recycling world means quality. Throughout the 1990’s, the USA produced a high-quality recycle product. The rest of the world wanted it enough to buy it.
Our recycling habit in the US was a good one and old habits are hard to break. To this day many people are still going through the motions of cleaning, sorting and setting out. But now most of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash. It is enough to make an environmentalist cry!
Ever heard of co-mingled recycling? I bet you have. Fully comingled or single-stream recycling refers to a system in which all paper, fibers, plastics, metals and other containers are mixed in a collection bin or truck instead of being sorted at the source. Instead the sort takes place at a central collection area where it can (in theory) be sorted more quickly and efficiently. This made so much sense that the idea spread fast from a few test communities in California to nationwide by 2012. By 2013 over 100 million Americans were serviced by comingled recycling. The devilish, time consuming business of sorting glass, plastic and paper waste was now abandoned. Life was simple and easy again. How clever. Not so fast.
Co-mingling is confusing
Turns out that “co-mingling” is mostly confusing. Americans faced with a trash container and a comingled recycling container have no idea the difference. The result is as you can imagine…a mess!
Because of mass confusion at the source in the collection system, by the time the “co-mingled” material gets to the plant for sorting, it is essentially not much more than pure garbage. The plants are not set up to sort pure garbage and so the system grinds to a halt or puts out filthy product or both. The result is a terrible recycling product and no one, not even China wants to buy it.
So, in ten years the “innovation” of co-mingled recycling has instead murdered the system. Not only are Americans now confused about how and what to recycle but even when they do, the quality is so bad, there is no market for it.
Politicians and the main stream media want you to think that China is to blame. It is not. Delivering a poor recycling product is our problem. Not China. If you want to answer the question “who killed recycling in America?” just look for those who introduced and promoted co-mingled waste to the market.
The end of recycling
Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. This is true, but I ask you who really killed the market?
This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day.
For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. We love to buy cheap products and then throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the cost of all this garbage is growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash. It is time to change our thinking.
Companies don’t bear the costs of disposal so they have no incentive to manufacture products out of material that will be easier to recycle. This needs to stop.
The best way to fix recycling is to persuade people to buy less stuff and take better care of the stuff they buy. This would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where we have a disposable mentality and where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP.
Meantime, many municipalities are desperately trying to retrain consumers to recycle properly again. I fully support them and wish them luck, they will need it. And please no more brilliant shortcuts like co-mingling thank you!
One of my readers, Kerry has asked:
“Interesting and frustrating article. Frustrating to know that recycling is diminishing. It would be nice to know if persons, cities, HOAs, POAs, townships, etc are being charged by for-profit waste companies for recycling services when their collected material is actually going to the landfills. I call that theft and fraud that needs to be exposed.”
HPM: Thanks for the thoughtful message Kerry. You have a very good point. A ton of money has been spent on separate trucks, collection bins, sorting centers etc. Who paid for all that, and who is paying for it now?