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Recycling Redux: Does Everything You Recycle End Up in a Landfill?

5 min read

For many of us, recycling has become a way of life. Though we may still struggle to avoid single-use plastics altogether, we’re diligent about making sure the plastics, paper and glass that make our lives convenient find their way to the recycling bin—and out to the curb, onto the waste management trucks and then into the recycling plant. Right?

Actually, not only might we be recycling our products incorrectly, but they also might not be getting recycled at all. If you’re anything like me, that’s enough to make your inner environmentalist buckle at the knees. How can our recycling be ending up in landfills instead of at the recycling plant? As it turns out, recycling is a much more complicated process than most of us realize.

How Recycling in the United States Works

Across the United States, recycling is often transported from the curb to a local sorting facility, where “marketable goods” are sorted. These goods are then sold either domestically, or to overseas processing plants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycle approximately 66 million tons annually, exporting nearly one-third of that total overseas. While countries like Indonesia, India and Vietnam help to import our recyclables, China has been the chosen go-to for handling our waste—plastics, paper and myriad other materials.

Beginning in January 2018 however, China has tightened standards for the recycling it accepts. These new rules are part of China’s anti-pollution campaign, and while we can all get on board with China trying to clean up its pollution, the result is a harsh reality check: Much of what China was previously accepting as recyclable waste is now not being recycled at all; instead, thousands of tons of waste are now piling up in landfills across the country.

Out west, states like Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii that have typically relied on China’s recycling plants now find themselves scrambling to deal with certain recyclables—types of glass, paper and plastics—and the advice from local garbage companies and officials is to throw them out with the trash. But the problem is not limited to the west coast; according to The New York Times, a Westborough, Massachusetts based recycling company recently had approximately 6,000 tons of paper and cardboard taking up half of its 80,000 sq. ft. warehouse. There was nowhere else for it to go.

Major Shifts in China Mean Major Impact on U.S. Landfills

These revised stipulations mean China will no longer accept loads of recycling that contain non-recyclable materials. Simply put, that cardboard to-go coffee cup you thought was a recycling no-brainer might actually contain a lining that makes it ineligible to recycle—and these are the items that might affect the entire load. Twenty-four materials have been banned to date, including, according to The Times, post-consumer plastic and mixed paper. “…It has also demanded that other materials, such as cardboard and scrap metal, be only 0.5 percent impure,” says The Times. “Even a small amount of food scraps or other rubbish, if undetected, can ruin a batch of recycling.”

Because of our dependence on China to recycle our own trash, those batches are now piling up across the country. While “other countries have stepped in to accept more plastics,” The Times notes, “total scrap plastic exports are still down 40 percent this year.” And the United States is not alone. Alternatives are being sought by parts of Europe, Canada, Australia, Germany and Britain.

To put it simply: That’s a lot of landfill for one planet.

4 Ways to Recycle Smarter

So, what’s a passionate recycler to do? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of not making a difference, but there are actionable steps we can all take to help our recycling make it from curb to truck to recycling plant.

Like we said before, “contaminated” recycling material can ruin an entire batch. The Times calls “aspirational recyclers” the people who try to recycle coffee cups, pizza boxes—and I confess, I’m one of them. Information is power, though, so in addition to checking with your local municipality and seeing how the changes in China affect the 50 states directly, learning how to recycle common household items might make a huge difference.

Forget the Food + Drink Containers

Oil-soaked pizza boxes, greasy takeout containers, yogurt cups or other plastics numbered 3 to 7 and even butter or vegetable oil containers are no longer considered recyclable (though you should always confirm updates with your local municipality). The food scraps in takeout containers contaminate them, oil makes cardboard less marketable to buyers, while the polyethylene lining in coffee cups nullifies their recyclability—which can prevent the rest of the load from being recycled.

However, if you have a pizza box with just a tiny amount of grease, go ahead and give it a try. If the oil can be separated from the cardboard fiber, do that before tossing it out. Oil-soaked cardboard should be composted, if possible, or thrown out altogether. Plastic coffee cup lids may be able to be recycled; check your local guidelines to make certain. And always rinse your takeout containers to rid them of food and grease before dropping them in the bin.

Bye-Bye, Plastic Bags

As if the plight of wildlife life (or tree branches) wasn’t a big enough argument for banning plastic bags, the fact that they’re not recyclable may just seal the deal. Plastic bags also plug machinery, making them very unwelcome guests at recycling plants. Check your local guidelines to see if there is a plastic bag drop-off available in your area, and always pack a reusable tote for errands to forgo the plastic bags altogether.

Ditch the Diapers

Though in a perfect world, diapers would not be relegated to the landfills for future generations to deal with, the different types of plastic and human waste components make them ineligible for recycling. These should go directly into the trash.

And Finally… Reduce the Need to Recycle

China’s new recycling regulations are a sobering reminder that we are, in fact, all connected. What happens in one part of the world has wide-reaching consequences. Armed with up-to-date information, we can make mindful choices that reduce our waste so it doesn’t need to be recycled, and prevent further harm to our beautiful, dynamic shared planet.

Interested in learning how else you can make a difference? Read about these cities banning plastic straws to save the planet. 

About The Author

Amy Flyntz

Amy Flyntz

Amy Flyntz is a Brooklyn-based writer and the founder of Amy Flyntz Copywriting. She spends her days weaving words to woo the masses, reading memoirs (and her horoscope) and snuggling with her rescue dog, Linus.