Starting out as a wartime necessity during the forties and evolving into a niche environmental movement in the seventies, recycling has been on a steep rise since the nineties. Today about a third of all U.S. households actively recycle waste materials and over the past few decades, thousands of campaigns have been launched worldwide to get more people to recycle things like plastic bottles and egg cartons. Recently, however, the discussion of waste treatment in the United States has not focused on how many people are recycling, but on where recyclable material is ending up.

Sources of plastic waste imports into China in 2016 and cumulative plastic waste export tonnage (in million metric tons) from 1988–2016. Courtesy: Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck

At the start of this year, China placed an import ban on 24 types of recyclable materials, such as assorted paper and the low-quality plastics used in soda bottles, as part of an environmental reform movement designed to deal with its own growing waste problems. While this is a smart move for China if it is to meet its pollution goals, its ban has left a huge hole in the global market for recyclables. Indeed, China made up almost 45 percent of global imports of recyclable materials from 1988 to 2016. It has such a large share of the market because Chinese companies can recycle plastic and other materials much more cheaply than their western competitors.


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Some recyclable waste has found its way to smaller markets in countries such as Japan, Thailand, Germany, and Belgium. They have been trying to pick up the slack over the last 6 months, but the amount of material is far too vast for their waste management systems to process. With nowhere left to turn, certain recycling businesses have been stockpiling massive amounts of recyclable materials in hopes that the market will soon reboot. But stockpiling can pose serious problems: last year a holding facility in Australia caught fire and spewed noxious smoke over surrounding cities for 11 days. In some cases, municipalities have refused to accept certain recyclable goods at all. With the Chinese import ban underway, it is estimated an extra 111 million metric tons of plastic will end up in landfills worldwide by the year 2030.


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The United States had until now been exporting much of its recyclable waste simply because it lacked the infrastructure, systems and recycling culture to efficiently process it domestically.

In most places in the United States, materials are recycled in one bin through what is known as “single-stream” recycling. The materials in the bin might include everything from cardboard and milk cartons to plastic bottles and soda cans, which all eventually end up at a materials recovery facility, or MRF. Once there, the materials are transported down conveyor belts where lasers, magnets and scales detect the different types of materials so they can be sorted into holding bins.

The problem with single-stream recycling is waste contamination. Items that are commonly thrown in the recycling bin by consumers, such as Styrofoam, greasy pizza boxes or half-full beer cans, cannot always be processed by MRFs. When a load is filled with non-recyclable pieces or soaked in liquid, throwing out the whole load is cheaper than the cost of decontamination. Approximately 25 percent of all recyclable waste in the United States ends up in landfills due to such contamination.

Because there is so much pressure on the consumer to recycle, producer responsibility is often overlooked. Companies focused on improving their bottom lines do not consider an item's entire life-cycle—including disposal—when they design their products. Cheaper, non-recyclable materials and certain design choices that simplify assembly can cut production costs, but ultimately contribute to the “single-use” type products that flood our landfills.


Opportunity for U.S. Leadership

Materials Recovery Facility in Westboro, MA
(Credit: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection)

Because exporting recyclable waste to China was cheap and hassle-free, efficient recycling systems in the United States were never seriously developed. The only way to tackle the current problem is to invest in waste management infrastructure. Our MRFs are rudimentary; modernization of existing plants would allow the recycling of more varieties of materials and at much faster turn-around rates. The construction of new processing sites is also necessary in order to handle the growing amount of recyclable waste the United States produces.

If the United States were to process its own recyclable waste, not only would we bring thousands of jobs back to Americans, we would also generate upwards of $1.8 billion annually through the recycling industry. A more dynamic and efficient domestic recycling industry could also raise recycling rates, with all the positive impacts that entails. Recycling keeps pollution off our streets and out of our waterways, and can help U.S. cities and states meet their carbon emission goals. Indeed, recycling reduces the need to extract and produce new resources, a process that generates significant amounts of carbon dioxide.

Modernizing the U.S. recycling industry is no easy feat. In order to make sure the United States has a strong and efficient waste management system, we would need the commitment of each and every citizen. One of the reasons people do not currently recycle is because they are confused about what can and cannot be recycled, whether the product should be cleaned or dismantled, and so on. Proper education about recycling through nationwide campaigns, consistent standards for recyclable products, and clear labeling on garbage bins would be an easy way to make sure every citizen is armed with the right tools.

Producers must also be held responsible, as the recycling burden should not rest entirely on consumers. A tax or law to ensure that a product's “end-of-life” is considered during the design phase would incentivize producers to design environmentally friendly products that can be easily recycled.

President Trump has called for massive infrastructure spending, having promised half a trillion dollars in new spending on roads, bridges and waterways during his election campaign. As the Administration and Congress evaluate how best to invest limited federal resources, they should consider investing in better recycling plants and practices that would help make the country more sustainable while creating local jobs and generating economic growth. The United States should seize the opportunity to gain these benefits by setting the global standard for efficient recycling.


Author: Meryl McBroom