Why Recycling Isn't Working
Updated: Jan 15
You diligently wash, crush, and place your recyclables in the bin, and then you hear the city is dumping it all in the landfill anyways. You may get angry, or you may wonder what’s the point. You’re not alone. According to The State of Curbside Recycling in 2020, fifty-four curbside recycling programs were eliminated by communities in recent years, while many others were reduced in scope. Budget cuts due to the economic impact of the pandemic may eliminate even more curbside recycling programs in the coming year.
Prior to the post-World War II economic boom, recycling was a necessary part of life, although it was more like what we call reuse and repurposing today. Both raw materials and cash were limited for most people. They tried to get as much use as possible out of an item. Things were reused and repurposed until little was left of them. The remnant was declared waste and dumped in one area of their property, used to fill a low spot in the surrounding countryside, or if living in a city, discarded in the city dump.
After World War II, manufacturing switched from military production to meeting pent-up consumer demand. New materials developed for the war effort, such as electronics and plastics, were converted into consumer products. Post-war prosperity meant people had more discretionary income. As they bought more things, they discarded more waste.
Concern about the increasing volume of waste and water contamination caused by its indiscriminate disposal led to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976. It’s the overarching U.S. law that governs waste. The law and its regulations replaced dumps with engineered landfills, designed with strict construction, maintenance, and closure specifications.
The first curbside recycling program followed shortly after the new law, in 1980 in Woodbury, NJ, unsurprisingly in a state where undeveloped land for new landfills was scarce and expensive. The modern recycling system was born. As cities and counties started to build and operate sanitary landfills, it quickly became apparent that decreasing landfill size saved money. Some saw recycling as a way to save money. For others, recycling saved green space from becoming a landfill.
The push to increase participation in recycling had several unforeseen, negative effects. Recycling became a popular cause of the environmental movement, whose focus on it caused people to lose site of the larger goal of reducing the entire waste stream through reusing and repurposing items. Plastics manufacturers saw a marketing opportunity in the enthusiasm for recycling. They promoted plastic products as recyclable to counter movements for plastic bans and to convince consumers it was OK to buy more, regardless of whether the process to recycle the product existed or was economically feasible. At the same time, driven by competition to capture the consumer market, manufacturers developed new synthetic materials, plastic products, and forms of electronics. During this period, the U.S. economy transitioned from a manufacturing-driven economy to a consumer-driven economy, and waste generated per person increased from 2.68 lbs/day to 4.9 lbs/day. Recycling couldn’t keep up with it all.
The final blow in what we now know to be the demise of recycling came in something that at first seemed positive. In their enthusiasm to promote recycling, communities moved away from requiring people to separate waste streams at home to single-stream recycling, where homeowners put everything to be recycled into one bin. For a few years, single-stream recycling increased homeowner participation in recycling, but it plateaued at about 35% of municipal solid waste being recycled. Single-stream recycling also created new problems.
To be viable, recycling processes need a “clean” waste stream. For example, recycling office paper becomes inefficient when the paper to be recycled is partially degraded by food and liquid residuals and is mixed with plastics. Throwing all materials to be recycled into one bin caused people to be less careful about throwing non-recyclables in with recyclables, further increasing contamination of the material.
New mechanized sorting systems replaced some of the sorting previously done by homeowners; however, much still had to be done by hand, which is expensive. The cost problem was partially solved by sending waste overseas for sorting and processing in countries where it could be done cheaper than in the U.S. The other part of the solution was to inspect truckloads of recyclables for contamination and send entire loads to the landfill when the level of contamination made the material not worth the cost of sorting. This practice was the start of people hearing about recyclables being sent to the landfill.
For many years, single-stream recycling was feasible because people in China sorted, processed, and disposed of waste from the U.S., particularly plastics. This ended in 2018 with China’s National Sword Policy. The policy banned importation of some wastes and set limits on contamination in the recyclable materials it accepted. Waste Dive documented dozens of municipal recycling programs that were terminated due to this policy, and they created a site that shows the policy’s effects by state. The pandemic has made the problem worse, both by increasing single-use plastic waste and by making recycling less economically feasible. Cities and counties are cutting budgets due to revenue shortfalls during the pandemic, and the many problems with recycling are making these programs prime candidates to be cut.
The problem with recycling is not a geopolitical issue with China, nor is it even an economic issue. The problem is rooted in what theologian Mary C. Grey calls a deeply spiritual crisis, in her book Sacred Longings: The Ecological Spirit and Global Culture. She describes this crisis as the result of a consumerist lifestyle, fed by a globalized economy that enables us to turn away from the people and ecosystems impacted by our lifestyle. Everything, including what we do with our waste, is reduced to what it costs us in dollars. We say we worship one God, and then we live in worship to another god.
Theologically speaking, sometimes death is needed for new life. This may be the case with the type of recycling we’ve had for the last 40 years. Based on economic viability, our current way of recycling has in some ways been “cheap grace.” We “absolve” ourselves of consumerism by throwing stuff in a blue bin and are “freed” to buy more, as seen by our solid waste generation increasing even as recycling increased. What’s needed is a change in spirit about the things we buy, own, and discard.
The good news is there are groups of people already working to bring new life to the global economy. They’re returning recycling to its original intent: a step toward a circular economy, where items are reused and repurposed, and waste is reduced. The National League of Cities’ Recycling Reimagined initiative is focused on building a circular economy, with local jobs that are not prone to the boom-bust cycle of resource extraction and globalized competition for cheap labor. The Recycling Partnership fosters funding and knowledge-sharing partnerships for recycling processes that are good for people and the planet. Their Bridge to Circularity initiative envisions a new plastics economy. There are countless small businesses led by owners who want a better world for their children. They are bringing innovation to recycling and finding new ways to reuse materials.
You and I have a role to play, too. It starts with reflecting on our own spirituality, the role that money and goods play in our lives, and what our faith says about them. It means remembering recycling is only part of a waste hierarchy and isn’t supposed to be the first or only option. Rethinking what we buy, reducing the waste we generate, and reusing / repurposing items to the extent possible are more important actions and are intended to minimize the amount of waste to be recycled. We can assist in creating a circular economy by looking for recycled content whenever we buy something. Finally, we can talk with family, friends, co-workers, and city officials to advocate for a new way of looking at recycling, a way that looks past the initial cost, sees the people and ecosystems affected by our choices, and honors our responsibility to them.