Whenever people talk about ways to help the environment, someone is sure to mention recycling. It’s a simple idea that makes intuitive sense: turning used materials like metal and paper into new ones. That keeps waste out of landfills while saving both raw materials and the energy needed to process them. It seems like an obvious win-win.
But recycling isn’t a magic solution. It takes a lot of effort, energy, and money to collect and process all that waste. And in some cases, the value of the material recovered isn’t enough to cover the cost. To understand why requires a closer look at how recycling works.
Recycling means breaking down waste materials and converting them into new products. It has three basic steps:
Traditional waste disposal is a linear process. Products are made, used, and disposed of in landfills or incinerators. Recycling, as the name suggests, is a cycle. Products are made, used, broken down, and used again. With some materials, this process can go on indefinitely. Other materials break down after a limited number of cycles.
In theory, many different materials are recyclable. However, the process differs widely from one material to the next. Some are very easy to recycle and offer big benefits—cost and environmental. Others are so difficult it’s a bit misleading to call them recyclable at all.
In 2018, the U.S. recycled 46 million tons of paper and cardboard. That’s about two-thirds of all our paper waste and also about two-thirds of all the material we recycle. It includes:
MRFs bale up this paper and send it to paper mills. There it’s shredded, mixed with water and chemicals, and churned until it breaks down into pulp. This pulp is cleaned and dried to form new paper products. Recycled pulp can go into shipping boxes, food packaging, newsprint, paper towels, or toilet paper.
At the end of their life, these products can be recycled again. However, paper fibers get shorter each time they go through this process. Thus, paper can only survive 5 to 7 rounds of recycling.
After paper, the most commonly recycled material is metal. While most metals are recyclable, curbside recycling programs generally take only aluminum and steel cans. These metals are crushed and, in the case of aluminum, shredded into small pieces. Then the metals are melted down, purified, and cooled.
The solid metal goes on to factories to be made into all kinds of new metal goods. Aluminum, for instance, can become soda or beer cans, aluminum foil, and even license plates. Unlike paper, metal can be recycled over and over.
There are many kinds of glass, but not all of them are recyclable. Most recycling programs accept only container glass: bottles and jars used for food packaging. MRFs break these containers into pieces of uniform size, sort them by color, and crush them into tiny fragments. These fragments, called glass cullet, can be melted down and poured into molds to make new containers.
Curbside recycling programs don’t all accept glass because it’s a difficult material to handle. It’s heavy and breaks easily, putting workers at risk of injury. It also isn’t worth as much money as some other materials.
Look at the bottom of a plastic container, and you’ll probably see a recycling logo: a number in a circle of arrows. This seems to suggest that all plastic goods are recyclable. Unfortunately, that’s true only in theory. In reality, most plastics are so difficult and costly to recycle that it’s just not worth doing.
There are several types of plastic made from different resins. Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is labeled as #1 on the recycling logo. It’s used in water and soda bottles. High-density polyethylene (HDPE), labeled as #2, is commonly found in shampoo and medicine bottles. These two plastics are the easiest kinds to recycle. They can be shredded, melted down, and remolded, much like glass. However, this process degrades the material, so it can only be recycled once or twice.
All other plastics—numbers 3 through 7—are even harder to recycle. Thus, most curbside programs don’t accept them.
Perhaps the trickiest material to recycle is electronic waste, or e-waste. This category includes rechargeable batteries, old cell phones, computers, TVs, and all sorts of gadgets. These devices contain a complicated mix of materials. Some are valuable, such as gold and palladium. Others are hazardous, such as cadmium and lead. That makes e-waste recycling difficult, but also very important. It’s the only way to recover precious materials while keeping harmful ones out of the environment.
Electronic waste can’t go in the bin with other recyclables. It must go to a special facility where staff can either refurbish it or dismantle it safely. Some communities have dedicated drop-off points for e-waste. You can also drop it off at many major retailers, such as Best Buy and Staples. To find an e-waste recycling site near you, visit Call2Recycle, Earth911, or GreenerGadgets.
Recycling helps the environment in several ways. Done right, it can:
Recycling also has economic benefits. It helps communities and businesses by:
Many problems with recycling are due to users putting items in the bin that don’t belong there. Often, they’re trying to do the right thing by including everything that might possibly be recyclable. But nonrecyclable items in the waste stream just cause problems. Plastic bags get tangled in the machinery, shutting down the conveyer. Small pieces of plastic, like bottle caps or straws, fall through gaps and get mixed into the glassware. This can make a whole batch unusable.
A better rule is “When in doubt, leave it out.” Only recycle things you know your program accepts. Check the program’s website to learn its rules. Some typical requirements include rinsing all containers and leaving out anything sharp, like broken glass or can lids. (It’s okay to recycle lids if you put them inside the can and squeeze the sides to keep them in.)
If an item can’t go in the bin, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to recycle it. For instance, many grocery stores collect LDPE bags for recycling. There are also services that collect a wide variety of other items, such as textiles, tires, and batteries. Sites like Recycle Nation and Earth 911 can help you find different kinds of recycling facilities in your area.
Another way to help make recycling work is to “close the cycle” by buying recycled goods. Look for the phrase “post-consumer recycled content” on the product label. If it says just “recycled content,” that may mean it’s made from manufacturing scraps. “Post-consumer” refers to material that’s been used and then recovered from the waste stream.
There’s a reason the saying “Reduce, reuse, recycle” puts “recycle” last. Both reducing and reusing can save more energy, more resources, and more money than recycling. Reducing means creating less waste by buying less stuff. Reusing means finding new uses for stuff you no longer need.
Ways to reduce and reuse include:
In recent years, there have been a lot of news stories about America’s recycling system being “broken.” One problem is that each local program has its own rules, and users don’t always understand what they can and can’t recycle. Many recyclable materials end up in landfills, while trash often contaminates recycling.
An even bigger problem is that there aren’t always markets for recycled materials. A lot of U.S. recyclables, especially plastics, used to get shipped to China. However, in 2018, the nation stopped accepting most of them, leaving recycling facilities scrambling to find new buyers. In many cases, they didn’t succeed and started dumping recyclables straight into the trash. Some towns closed down their recycling programs entirely.
Recycling definitely makes sense for metals and cardboard, and sometimes for glass as well. The biggest problem is plastic. It’s hard to collect and sort, and it has little monetary value. Worse, recycling it can actually harm the environment. When plastic went to China, it wasn’t always handled carefully and often ended up in the ocean. Even when it’s recycled properly, around 13% of it turns into harmful microplastic pollution. An environmental economist interviewed by National Public Radio claims it’s better to throw plastic away than recycle it.
Governments and businesses are working on ways to make our recycling system work better. New approaches include:
The U.S. recycling system certainly isn’t perfect. But it’s an exaggeration to say it’s useless. At its best, recycling can save energy, prevent pollution, and fight climate change.
Individuals like you can help make the system work as it should. Make sure you recycle everything you can—and nothing you shouldn’t. The more people follow these simple rules, the more effective recycling can be.
At the same time, don’t make recycling your only effort. Reducing and reusing can prevent things from going into the waste stream in the first place. Combining all three is the best way to tackle the U.S. waste problem and make our economy more sustainable.