Why the rules of recycling seem so complicated and what you can do to help
Updated: May 4, 2022
By Isabel Crews
Jerome Smalls remembers exactly what got him on board with recycling.
It was a video a professor showed him about what happens when plastics enter the ocean.
“What really hit me was when he showed me a video of the plastic, suffocating the fish. That really hit me,” says Smalls, the recycling team lead for the College of Charleston.
The United States generates the largest amount of plastic waste in the world, with 105.3 kg of waste per capita per year.
This is not a new issue but it is one that has become increasingly more important to Americans as the amount of waste and plastic has kept piling up, with an emphasis placed on the importance of recycling across the United States.
Americans started recycling when trash started becoming very visible. In the 1940s, plastics became common for everyday products because of their durability and the convenience of single-use items. But the federal government became concerned by the amount of plastics ending up in parks and on the streets everywhere and this led to the creation of Keep America Beautiful.
Keep America Beautiful placed an emphasis on picking up trash, launching the first “Every Litter Bit Counts” campaign to raise awareness about litter and encourage Americans to pick up after themselves, putting pressure on consumers rather than manufacturers producing the plastic, single-use items, to fix the issue.
The majority of people’s waste was going to landfills in the 1960s and they started overflowing in the 1970s, requiring a new solution that was not just litter-based. Thus, curbside recycling began and the rates of recycling increased.
Recycling came with a lot of rules and a lot of confusion. In fact, a lot of materials meant for recycling still end up being sent to landfills because of contamination. Contamination is caused by a variety of issues, one of which is confusion over what to recycle and how.
Most people put what they assume is recyclable in the bin and believe they have done their part to help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or contaminating waterways. Items put into recycling that cannot be recycled usually contaminate the entire batch of materials sorted with it, making all of those items landfill materials.
The chasing arrows displayed on products signal that an item is recyclable but in some cases they simply indicate what type of plastic an item is made of so consumers know it cannot be recycled. Since recycling rules are different across the country, it does not have a label stating the item is not recyclable.
Multi-Stream and Single-Stream recycling have made it difficult for consumers to know what can be recycled and where, since multi-stream requires individuals to sort out different recyclable materials while single-stream allows all materials to be mixed in the same recycling bin. Although Multi-Stream recycling can cause individuals to sort more carefully, the recycling process still causes confusion among Americans.
The growing number of items that are not able to be recycled are further contributing to the growth of landfills and hurting the environment. Landfills pose a variety of threats to wildlife, humans, and the environment.
In order to accommodate the large amount of waste generated by Americans, land has to be cleared out for landfills which means wildlife there is also affected, not only by habit displacement but also by the toxic materials and gasses produced by the waste in these landfills. In addition, these same toxic gasses and materials can seep into waterways that people living near the landfills use everyday, affecting their overall health.
One of the toxic gasses produced by landfills is methane gas. It is produced as the waste decomposes and “is 84 times more effective at absorbing the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide, making it one of the most potent greenhouse [gasses] and a huge contributor to climate change.”
These are only a few of the negative effects of landfill waste, making it increasingly important to seek solutions to improve recycling and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills across the United States.
Contamination in recycling not only involves landfill waste or compost that gets mixed into recycling but even recyclables put in the wrong bins can disrupt the process. It often results in other recyclables being sent to the landfill and it degrades the quality of the recyclables.
One of the main reasons for this contamination is the confusion over labeling and exactly what types of materials and plastics go where. In the GreenPeace Reports, they explain that, “The triangle symbols on plastic containers do NOT mean the product is recyclable.”
This issue has become more prevalent with single-stream recycling. Single stream-recycling may result in a higher number of individuals participating in the recycling process but it also results in a lot of mixed materials being thrown into the blue bin.
Many people struggle to figure out what should go in each bin because of the different labels and accepted materials depending on the county or state.
Tara Stewart previously worked in communications for Walmart also assisting in sustainability and recycling-related efforts company-wide. She is also a participant in “wishcycling,” which is when consumers don’t know if a material is recyclable and decide to just put it in recycling since they are unsure.
“When in doubt, I put it in the recycling bin and I hope, yeah, I hope, and I teach my children the same thing, right…I guess I have more faith that there's more recycling centers that can manage these days,” Stewart says.
Sorting is a critical part of the recycling process and can be the difference between tons of materials going through the sorting facility or being rejected and sent to the landfill.
“Well, I'm involved to make sure to keep the campus clean. That's the priority one. Make sure that all the cans, they're not contaminated…And make sure the sorting of cans and the paper and landfill stuff is in order. Make sure everything's done all right.”
For people like Smalls who work to sort materials at large facilities like college campuses, sorting can be challenging when people do not understand where the different items belong. Jiaying Zhao, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, specializes in ways to improve rates of composting and recycling.
Zhao suggests that a barrier to adequate sorting is that, "If you have to look at the sign for a long time and figure out where to throw your stuff ... that can create confusion."
That confusion leads to more waste, because recycling contamination ― when non-recyclables are mixed in with recyclables ― can turn tonnes of perfectly good recyclables into garbage headed for the landfill. Some argue that multi-stream recycling can be more effective than single-stream recycling in combating the confusion and sorting issues.
Discussing the multi-stream bins for paper and cardboard on campus, Darcy Everett, director for the Center for Sustainable Development at the College of Charleston, says it's more effective.
“I think also just potentially thinking about the inequities of where landfills are located right and the effects of that, she said, pointing out the social inequities occurring because landfills are generally located near low income areas. "There are odors and you know, potentially other hazards that come from having houses close to landfills."
Impacts of landfill waste
Everett believes that methane gas is not the only major impact of landfill waste.
“I think also just potentially thinking about the inequities of where landfills are located right and the effects that. There are odors and you know, potentially other hazards that come from having houses close to landfill sites as well. So I think there's potential social inequities that can occur based on where landfills are located,” Everett said.
Often, minoritized groups in the lower class end up living near landfills since affordable housing is restricted to those areas.
Leachate is liquid that contains landfill contaminants and in landfills, especially older ones that do not have anything in place to keep them contained, end up in aquifers or groundwater.
Where it applies to consumers is that hazardous wastes and other chemicals end up in landfills because they are not properly disposed of by consumers.
This makes it increasingly important for consumers to not only properly dispose of their waste but to also limit the amount of waste they are sending to landfills in the first place.
One way to combat the confusion over recycling and to inform the public about the risks of landfill waste and contaminants is through education.
On college campuses, Smalls and Everett both emphasized the importance of education on proper signage to help students and other members of campus communities to recognize what can and cannot be recycled.
“There's kind of a gap between the education that we're able to provide with the resources we have to make sure that students know what can and can't be recycled. So we're trying to improve that through having consistent signage across campus…but I think as we continue to expand our opportunities for student education, we'll see that continue to improve as well.”
Everett suggested several ways to improve participation and the quality of recycling by having consistent signage, training resident hall directors, and even hosting a recycling educational program during orientation to help combat the confusion and lack of conscientiousness when it comes to disposing of waste.
“Pay attention to the signs, pay attention to the signs on the container, and give us some feedback if they don't see the signs,” Small says, adding this is one way people can help.
Even outside of campus communities, people can raise awareness to a lack of signage for recycling and take the extra effort to contact facilities management to prevent added contamination and help others learn to sort more effectively.
Seek out more information about how to recycle to help limit the amount of contamination that causes recyclables to go to the landfill.
If, even with research, someone cannot decide where an item goes for recycling, Everett says it's better to throw in the trash.
“My kind of phrase is, 'when in doubt, throw it out. 'And I know that doesn't sound great from a zero waste standpoint but from a recycling standpoint, it's better to have cleaner recycling because then it's actually able to be recycled than having a whole load of contaminated recycling that they're having to throw away," Everett says. "So I kind of go with that phrase when I think about recycling.”
However, it is not all up to the consumers when companies are producing products out of different materials. Mission-based recycling emphasizes the importance of a circular economy.
Jenson Quinn, the Director of Education and Research Management for the Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN), and Young Grguras, the Campaign Director for PLAN gave important insight to the need for recycling and also action at a larger, less individualized level.
“My biggest issue with recycling and mission-based recycling is a little bit different, but for me, my biggest issue is that recycling is terribly individualistic,” Quinn argues.
Mission-based recycling would involve redesigning products made out of wasteful materials and also looking at recycling infrastructure and how they can “recover and remanufacture” materials.
“For plastic specifically, recycling never is circular. It's what you call down cycling. So every time you recycle something that is plastic, it degrades in quality,” Young says.
A viable solution to recycling, transition to mission-based only and take action.
Reasons to recycle
The reasons to recycle and recycle right are limitless. This is on consumers, producers, and everyone in between.
“Collective movement and infrastructure to support those behavioral changes,” Quinn and Young agree.
Greenhouse gas emissions like methane and environmental hazards from landfill waste are just two of the reasons people should be recycling often and properly.
While it can be difficult to determine what exactly can be recycled, there are resources online where organizations like Recycle Right provide information on sorting and the recycling process itself.
“People are understanding that end of life is important. Being able to either recycle or reuse at end of life is vital. You can’t not have it,” Stewart says.
Recycling is a continuously developing process and it requires thoughtfulness from both producers and consumers to sort out their waste and make sure that less items become single-use and instead get repurposed.
As redundant as it may sound, reduce, reuse and recycle is still an important mindset to have in addition to seeking out information and helping with education so more people understand why it is important to think beyond their own trashcan.