Reduce, reuse, recycle, and repeat. Reduce, reuse, recycle is a mantra commonly taught to children to remind them to put these words into action. While the first two R’s of this trio (reduce and reuse) can be completed entirely by an individual, recycling requires the reliance on another party. Additionally, it forces us to ask ourselves if these recycling programs genuinely make a difference regarding the environment. That being said, preserving, protecting, and healing our environment has been at the forefront of everybody’s mind—causing a ripple of reactions to prove or disprove if recycling works. However, this over-concentration on recycling (of the three R’s) is the precise reason it is failing in the United States.

The United States, unlike many other countries, has not implemented a federal recycling program. “Given the absence of a federal recycling law, state and local governments are responsible for their own requirements and have taken various actions to address recycling in their communities.” The inconsistencies between recycling programs from state to state, and locality to locality, create a wider gap between what consumers (the public) believe can be recycled and what cannot. While most can agree that single-stream recycling—using one bin for all the materials that can be recycled—has made recycling easier for the public, it “results in about one-quarter of the material being contaminated.”

Contamination of recycling batches results from materials being placed into the wrong category (such as one type of plastic ending up with another). Additionally, to make matters more complicated, some materials cannot be processed in particular localities. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that while “most Americans want to recycle, as they believe recycling provides an opportunity for them to be responsible caretakers of the Earth. However, it can be difficult for consumers to understand what materials can be recycled, how materials can be recycled, and where to recycle different materials. This confusion often leads to placing recyclables in the trash or throwing trash in the recycling bin or cart.” Unfortunately, the bottom line is that contamination results in entire batches of potentially recyclable materials being put into landfills; in 2018 alone, of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste, only 69.1 million tons were recycled. However, one might ask why were these materials not separated in the first place?

History indicates that recycling (in the United States) is failing because primarily of the plastic industry; however, it is much more than that. According to Laura Sullivan, an investigative journalist with NPR, “Coy Smith was one of the first to see the [recycling] industry’s new initiative.”

[In the early 1990s], Smith ran a recycling business. His customers were watching the ads and wanted to recycle plastic. So Smith allowed people to put two plastic items in their bins: soda bottles and milk jugs. He lost money on them, he says, but the aluminum, paper and steel from his regular business helped offset the costs. But then, one day, almost overnight, his customers started putting all kinds of plastic in their bins.

As previously mentioned, for materials to be recycled (without contamination), other materials cannot be in the said batch; most companies are not provided with the money or resources for this meticulous sorting level.

While recycling in the United States has not been successful—what can we do (as a country) to make it so? As a whole, the United States should focus more on reducing and reusing rather than just recycling; this is what the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act hopes to achieve. In March 2021, the bill was introduced to the United States House of Representatives, which would require “minimum recycled content requirements in containers, and banning certain single-use plastic products. It also proposes a national bottle deposit program, which the US lacks.” However, the public needs to do their part, as well. By reducing the number of materials used because one opts for a burlap bag instead of a plastic bag, the number of materials that would need to be recycled would be drastically reduced.

Essay by: Taylor Dean
Arizona State University, Tempe (Online)

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