The Truth Behind Recycling
I remember learning how to recycle sometime during elementary school, sitting crisscross applesauce in the multi-purpose room listening to adults sing over and over, “Reduce, Resue, Recycle!” And thus the three R’s of the environment were introduced into my young life, and I assume that most people today recall some memories along the same lines. Recycling is a very important aspect in waste management. Recology, San Francisco’s local waste hauler, recycles 750 tonnes each day (Reed 2018). Worldwide, “more than 270 million tonnes of waste are recycled…each year,” which is about the weight of 740 Empire State Buildings (Reed 2018). We can clearly see that the recycling industry has grown vastly since then, but the truth is so has human consumption and the amount of trash produced along with it. And the recycling sector has not been able to face this growing impact on its own. Over the past decades, the recycling industry has grown, gone through crisis, and been met with many financial dilemmas.
To make recycling more accessible to households, the curbside recycling system was introduced. The first program was introduced in University City, Missouri in 1973, and by 2006 there were 8,600 recycling programs running around the country (Clark 2020). Recycling quickly took off, and now you can find at least two separate waste bins anywhere from schools and households to amusement parks. When it first started, people were asked to separate paper, plastic, and glass into different waste bins. Due to improvements in technology, single-stream collection was invented, and all recyclables could be placed in one bin. In this process, magnets, electric currents, and infrared lasers are used to sort the materials based on the light wavelengths that each material emits (Clark 2020). Although this single-stream collection makes it easier for the ordinary person to recycle, it still faces many challenges.
Where does it really go?
Prior to gaining an interest in environmental topics, I had never before thought about where my recyclables went to after being tossed in the blue bin. Like most, I assumed they were taken to a local waste facility and recycled on-site, but it turns out the reality is quite different. The truth is that half of the recyclables collected were packaged into shipping containers and sent to China. Beginning in 1992, “US cities and trash companies started offshoring their most contaminated, least valuable recyclables” to China (Sierra Club 2019). The United States sold China these recyclables to get rid of them and because “China was desperate for raw materials” (Sierra Club 2019). Once the materials arrived in China they were separated, somewhat cleaned, and broken down to be turned into useful products once again. Since China was willing to buy the materials for so long, it disincentivized the United States to invest in facilities, technology, and labor that could recycle the materials domestically. It was much easier to sell it to another country and forget about it.
Where will the recyclables go?
The United States’ ability to offshore trash changed drastically in January of 2018 when China laid stricter rules on trash imports as part of their anti-pollution campaign. They banned the imports of “various types of plastic and paper, and tightened standards for materials it does not accept” (Albeck-ripka 2018). This included becoming stricter about accepting any contaminated or dirty materials. Technically, China will still accept some recyclables, but “it has set such a high bar for the cleanliness of the materials that can be imported that most people in the industry refer to it as a ‘ban’” (Reed 2018).
Without China accepting the materials that are being collected in the US, these recyclables have no place to go. Many waste facilities began to stockpile the recyclables, and as more trash was collected more waste was stored. This led many companies to begin dumping their recyclables into landfills since they could no longer store it, and the amount being brought in was only increasing (Albeck-ripka 2018). All over the country, cities were taking various different approaches from continuing to tell their residents to separate recyclables (even though they were destined for the landfill) to “telling customers that they should throw plastic, glass, and types of paper straight to the landfill” (Albeck-ripka 2018). Many residents were extremely upset to find out what city waste facilities were truly doing because they believed strongly in recycling as they felt they were doing their part to help save the environment. Luckily, San Francisco is not one of these cities, and there is no need to worry that our efforts to diverge waste from landfills is going unnoticed. In fact, “San Francisco diverts around 80 percent of waste away from landfills, putting it among the elite recycling cities” (Richtel 2016).
In the United States, it is becoming more and more expensive to recycle domestically, and for this same reason, “companies are throwing the recyclables in the trash because they can no longer afford it” (Semuels 2019). They see no better option since hiring labor to sort through the recycling is much more costly than making plastics and paper from raw materials. At this point in time, extracting raw materials is still cheaper than recycling materials to be reused, and the firm’s decision-making will not change until the cost of recycling does (Semuels 2019).
A couple of months after China enforced stricter guidelines, other countries like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam began importing recycling materials from the United States. But these countries have slowly shifted in the same direction as China leaving the United States with less and less options of where to ship their waste. Only time will tell when the United States will be made responsible for its trash.
Although recycling has done much to divert recyclable material out of the landfill, the process still contains many limitations. We first must understand that not all materials can be recycled in every single area. Each city has different guidelines on how and what can be recycled, so some cities may be able to recycle many more types of materials than other cities. For example, in San Francisco, Recology can turn recycled glass back into bottle glass in about 6 weeks, “while many other cities are finding that glass is so heavy and breaks so easily that it is nearly impossible to truck it to a place that will recycle it” (Semuels 2019). Another common recycling issue is what some waste managers call “wishful or aspirational recycling” (Albeck-ripka 2018). This refers to when items that cannot be recycled are put in the recycling bin anyways in hopes of it being recycled. For example, single-use coffee pods, greasy pizza boxes (contaminated by grease), or even thin plastic wrappers (hard to capture and sort) cannot be recycled in San Francisco. By these items ending up in recycling bins, they actually do more harm than good. If these products include food, they immediately contaminate the rest of the items in the bin. If the bin contains too much contamination, its entire contents must be thrown into the landfill. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, about 25% of what is placed into a recycling bin is contaminated. Even though everyone trying to recycle these items has good intentions, the reality is it only sends much more waste into the landfills. This is why proper sorting of recyclables is so critical!
The United States has come a long way from the introduction of recycling, but it still stands that “there’s no silver bullet to stop plastic pollution. We’re not going to be able to recycle our way out of the problem” (Howard 2018). Due to the limitations of the recycling process and outside factors that are out of our control, we must look for new technologies that will help to clean up waste in developed and developing worlds (Howard 2018). Another option to solve the recycling problem would be to persuade “people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made” (Semuels 2019). Production industries can also help alleviate the strain by finding more efficient ways to make and package goods. This includes packaging and producing goods with less amounts of plastic or incorporating ways that they can be easily recycled or reused. Being more mindful of a consumer and a producer as a whole can lead to a greater impact on waste reduction than figuring out ways to manage the waste once it is already produced. As a society we must remember the first two R’s we learned in elementary school – we must reduce and reuse anything we can before trying to recycle it!
Albeck-ripka, Livia. “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 May 2018,
Clark, Josh. “Is What We’re Recycling Actually Getting Recycled?” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 27 Jan. 2020,
Grabar, Henry. “Recycling Isn’t About the Planet. It’s About Profit.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 5 Apr. 2019,
Howard, Brian Clark. “5 Recycling Myths Busted.” National Geographic, 31 Oct. 2018,
Reed, John, et al. “Why the World’s Recycling System Stopped Working.” Financial Times, 25 Oct. 2018,
Richtel, Matt. “San Francisco, ‘the Silicon Valley of Recycling’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2016,
Semuels, Alana. “Is This the End of Recycling?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 6 Mar. 2019,
“The US Recycling System Is Garbage.” Sierra Club, 26 June 2019,