“Recycling is broken.” “The U.S. Recycling System is Garbage.”
Over the past year, you would be hard-pressed to miss headlines like these splashed all over the news. In the wake of some of the lowest recycling markets in history–– brought on by China’s policy that closed the door to imports of American recyclables––, the legitimacy of recycling has been challenged, with some even suggesting we should scrap it as a failed solution.
Meanwhile, the world is facing unprecedented global challenges, including accelerating climate change, ocean pollution, and public health threats, all linked to unchecked production and consumption. In the face of these looming catastrophes, more and more people are realizing that recycling alone isn’t going to save us.
Today is America Recycles Day, a national event promoted by Keep America Beautiful, an industry-sponsored organization with a questionable history of shifting the burden of plastic pollution from the companies themselves onto taxpayers and recyclers. The purpose of the event is to promote recycling as a primary solution to the plastic problem. However, to date only 9% of the plastics ever created have been recycled; instead these materials persist in our landfills, or even worse, in our oceans, on our beaches and throughout our environment.
Major brands have increasingly flooded the market with more and different types of single-use plastics, made predominantly from taxpayer-subsidized, virgin, oil and natural gas (increasingly extracted through fracking). The industry insists these items should be included in recycling programs, even while the industry does little to nothing to actually make their products recyclable, use recycled content in their products, or invest in infrastructure to recover their products. Instead, these brands have been found polluting communities around the world.
As non-profit, Zero Waste mission-based recyclers (who originally brought community recycling programs to the U.S. back in the 1960s), we have been operating recycling facilities and programs to help realign recycling with its original purpose: to protect human health, preserve natural resources and habitats, reduce our carbon footprint, and strengthen regional economies — not just generate profit.
Recycling has drifted off track. It has inadvertently propped-up the “throw-away” society we are trying to fight by allowing entities like the plastics industry and big consumer brands to pursue unbridled production under the guise that consumers and the recycling industry are somehow responsible for whatever products they dish out.
Recycling is on the ropes, but it is by no means broken and it’s not going away. Of course recycling can’t be the solution to all waste–it was never meant to be. But recycling is an effective tool for immediately reducing impact from certain materials, while we build toward solutions with even better prospects like reuse and reduction. Our message on this America Recycles Day is simple: we must keep recycling and invest in improvements, but we can’t stop there.
As an alliance of mission-based recyclers, we are calling for a shift to a new recycling system that corrects these problems by:
- Removing all subsidies of virgin material extraction. Subsidies of virgin extraction (of fossil fuels and forests) make it artificially cheaper to use virgin materials, making it harder for recycled feedstocks to compete. This is a poor use of taxpayer dollars.
- Taxing the harms caused by material extraction, like a carbon tax. If environmental harms like toxic air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions, well known in economics as “externalities,” were taxed, products with the lowest impacts would be cheaper, making it easier for consumers to make sustainable purchasing choices.
- Requiring that producers pay. When producers make packaging, they want it to be unique and specific to their product and brand. If they have no responsibility for its end-of-use, they do not consider real recycling as part of the design process. Making producers pay for releasing packaging into the environment is a way to fund clean up and true recycling solutions. There’s a big difference between something being technically recyclable and it actually getting recycled, and it shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the recycling industry or taxpayers to find a way to recycle the tsunami of plastic products.
- Supporting demand for recycled content with policies. While industry pledges to use recycled content are in abundance, we’ve heard those commitments for years without follow-through. Recycled-content mandates incentivize industry to buy back their products for remanufacturing regardless of the price of virgin commodities. Mandatory minimum recycled content and government procurement standards ensure a strong and stable market for recyclables while actually closing the loop.
- Expanding Bottle Deposit and Redemption Bills. Bottle bills and other deposit systems motivate consumers to return products for recovery, and are the only proven way to get to 90% recovery of post consumer packaging. The beverage industry has fought these efforts for years despite their inspiring proclamations and recycling goals. It’s time for a national bottle bill.
- Banning wasteful products. We need to discontinue the production and use of avoidable, single-use plastics. Communities across the globe are working to ban or restrict these plastics as a first step toward reduction.
- Redesigning to reduce, reuse and recycle. When designing products, producers must start by using fewer resources, developing reusable packaging where possible, and ensuring any product deemed “recyclable” or “compostable” is first approved by those in the recycling and compost processing industries.
- Protecting and certifying the term “recycling.” Industry is presenting false solutions under the banner of recycling. Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Unproven and unregulated technologies like “chemical recycling” are often a misnomer for dirty plastics-to-fuel or other combustion technologies. If it doesn’t protect our health and the environment and prevent the need for more extraction, it’s not recycling.
On this America Recycles Day, we have a huge opportunity–and imperative—in front of us. It’s time to reclaim recycling as a cornerstone of a truly regenerative, Zero Waste system that benefits us all and the planet.
The export of low-grade post-consumer plastic packaging in the guise of recycling has been an unmitigated disaster for communities and ecosystems overseas.
Demand local contracts require transparency, develop minimum recycling standards for cities, get cities to adopt plastic reduction ordinances, and support elected officials in ensuring recycling programs survive economically through this hard time.
Minneapolis / St. Paul, Minnesota
Recycle Ann Arbor
Ecology Center Ann Arbor Michigan