Are Your Recyclables Actually Being Recycled?

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Those are the 3Rs that have been instilled in us since we were in elementary school. In the last 10 years, it seems like recycling has become more prominent than ever. With a high stress work environment, where people put in about 60-80 hours a week, go to school part-time to continue their studies, the last thing they want to do is come home and cook all of their meals. As a result, more and more people are relying on take-out and quick microwave meals. At the end of their meal, people are more likely to just chuck the empty containers into the recycling bin, without thinking if they will actually be recycled and what they will be turned into.

Did you know that only about 9% of our recyclables are actually recycled into new products? Since going zero waste, I have started to think about where all of the packaging is going when it comes to landfill waste, compost, and recycling. Since China’s ban on accepting the majority of our recyclables, it seems that more people are starting to question where their recyclables are going and if the recyclables are actually be recycled. Items like pizza boxes and other containers that are contaminated and can’t actually be recycled. With the introduction of single stream recycling centers, people just assume that they can recycle any material without thinking about it. If they can’t be recycled, well my recycling center will dispose of it correctly, right? Well, I just found out about 6 months ago that my local area actually burns the majority of our waste because we don’t have enough space in our landfill or dump for it all. Burning of the waste is a very common practice that admit a ton of toxins into our air that increase the amount of pollutants on our planet.

During my research on recycling policies around the United States, I found on the Lansing MI recycling policy page, that every 1,000 tons of recyclables that the city collects has helped save 14,903 trees, 6,404,606 gallons of water, 408,412 gasoline, 2,856 metric tons of greenhouse gases emissions. It is amazing to see that some cities and towns in the United States are transparent about how much of an impact our recycling efforts have been on the planet. When you try to figure out where the recyclables are going/ what they are being turned into, it seems like you get stuck in the depths of the internet with no answers.

What I have been able to figure out is that the majority of glass bottles, metal cans, and scrap metal pieces can be turned back into more glass bottles, metal cans, and metal pieces. What’s hard to figure out is what is all of that plastic being turned into it. Many companies have started to recycle plastic bottles into more plastic bottles. That being said, there isn’t a plastic bottle out there that is made entirely of recycled plastic materials. Same goes for plastic bags, plastic containers, and other pieces of plastic. Most of the time we find a sticker that says it’s made of 25% or 50% post recycled materials. Where is all of the rest of that plastic going?

I am not entirely sure. Once the recyclables are packaged, companies actually have to purchase those recyclables so they can be turned back into new products. According to China, the majority of our recyclables are actually garbage, due to contamination. The United States is working with other companies to see if they will use our recyclables to create new products. In the meantime, it looks like a ton of our recyclables just pile up in the warehouses. Even though your local state will package the recyclables, not many companies are actually purchasing them so they can be created into new products.

Recently, I have found out that a large portion of our glass isn’t actually recycled into more glass, but instead are burned to make charcoal to cover the landfill. I am still researching this issue, for another post. I am not sure which cities and towns do this/ why this has become a popular practice. All of this information has left me in a bit of a pickle. Then I think back to the 3Rs. Despite all of our best efforts to find new countries that will accept our recyclables, we need to change our mindset and figure out how to live without a ton of plastic packaging. We need to figure out what plastic is necessary and what we may be able to actually live without.

As everyone says in the Zero Waste Movement, we cannot rely on recycling as a sole solution to our environmental problem. It is also something that we will not be able to get rid of anytime soon!