In partnership with the National Geographic Society.
Last Earth Day, I published a column in the Washington Post on common recycling myths. I received so many comments and emails in response, often asking additional questions, that I wanted to follow up with a new list here at National Geographic.
The recycling industry is changing rapidly, as are advancements in materials science and product design. The field has an increasingly global footprint and is affected by complex forces, from oil prices to national policies and consumer preferences.
As investor Rob Kaplan of Circulate Capital recently told National Geographic, “There's no silver bullet to stop plastic pollution. We're not going to be able to recycle our way out of the problem, and we're not going to be able to reduce our way out of the problem.” We have to pursue both those tracks while seeking new solutions at the same time, Kaplan noted, which is why his firm is raising tens of millions of dollars to invest in new litter cleanup efforts in the developing world.
Most experts agree that recycling remains an important way to reduce litter and waste and to recover valuable materials, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving significant amounts of energy and water. Here are some other things to keep in mind:
Myth No. 1
I don’t need to worry about separating anything; I can throw everything I want into a blue bin and the city will sort it out.
With the rise of “single-stream” recycling systems in the late 1990s, the number of people partaking in recycling skyrocketed. Consumers in many areas no longer had to sort their recycling by the type of material, let alone by the color of the glass or the numbered category stamped on the bottom of plastics. They could simply place all their recyclables into one container.
That made things a lot easier for consumers. But it has also led to a significant amount of contamination—both in terms of damaged materials and unwanted stuff that gums up the works. Overzealous recyclers, in their desire to avoid waste, are too often tossing everything from banana peels to wooden picture frames to broken cellphones into blue bins, ignoring the posted rules.
As a result, the Container Recycling Institute points out that even though single-stream systems increase participation and reduce the costs of collection, they tend to cost an average of three dollars per ton more to maintain than dual-stream systems, in which paper products are collected separately from other items. In particular, broken glass and plastic shards can readily contaminate paper, causing problems at the paper mill. Ditto for food grease and other chemicals.
Today, about a quarter of everything consumers place in recycling bins ultimately can’t be recycled by the programs that collect them. This includes such items as food waste, rubber hoses, wire, low-grade plastics, and many other items that overly hopeful residents toss in. Such materials waste hauling space and fuel, jam up machinery, contaminate valuable materials, and pose hazards to workers.
In response to the problem, China, which takes in a significant portion of the recycling material collected in the U.S. for processing, will now only accept shipments with a contamination rate of 0.5 percent or less.
So regardless if your community follows single-stream, dual-stream, or another recycling system, it’s important to follow your local rules to keep the process running smoothly.
Myth No. 2
Formal recycling programs take jobs away from poor trash sorters, so it’s better to just let waste lie where it falls; those in need will pick it up for reuse.
This was a particularly common refrain when I lived in Manhattan, where one can often see people rummaging through trash bins in search of anything with a little value. But that’s not the most effective way to manage waste, and the reality is a more complex interplay of players, not an either-or proposition.
Around the world, millions of people eke out a living collecting waste. They are often among the poorest and most marginalized citizens, yet they provide valuable services to society. Waste collectors reduce litter and the resulting risk to public health, and they contribute meaningfully to recycling efforts.
In Brazil, where the government tracks the country’s estimated 230,000 full-time waste pickers, data show that they have helped drive up recycling rates to nearly 92 percent for aluminum and 80 percent for cardboard. (Compare that to 75 percent for aluminum and 70 percent for cardboard in the U.S.).
Around the world, studies show that more than three quarters of such waste pickers are actually selling their finds to established businesses within the recycling chain. So informal waste pickers are often working with formal enterprises, rather than competing against them.
One such example is Al Electronic Recycling Center in South Los Angeles, where 90 percent of the redeemable material they process is brought by local trash pickers, many of them homeless, who are paid for the material.
Anthony Collins, A1’s owner, told the Huffington Post, “[Trash pickers] keep you afloat, keep you busy, keep your employees working.”
Many waste pickers themselves have been organizing, unionizing, and seeking formal acknowledgement and protection from their governments—in other words, seeking to join established recycling chains, not undermine them. That’s what has happened in Buenos Aires, where some 5,000 people, many former informal trash pickers, now earn a wage working for the city collecting recyclables. In Copenhagen, the city has installed trash cans with special shelves where people can leave bottles, making them easier for informal collectors to retrieve and turn in for the deposits.
Myth No. 3
Products made of more than one type of material can’t be recycled.
When recycling first got started decades ago, the technology was more limited than it is today. Forget about trying to recycle complex items or those made up of different kinds of materials, such as juice boxes, milk cartons, or toys.
Now, more than 60 percent of U.S. households have access to carton recycling, thanks to wider use of machines that can break down these items into their constituent materials. Thanks in part to consumer demand, product manufacturers have consistently been working on making packaging that is easier to recycle. If you find yourself stymied by a particular item, give the manufacturer a call to make your case.
It’s always a smart idea to check the latest rules for your particular recycling provider, but many consumers no longer have to separate out the plastic windows from envelopes, or remove staples from documents. Recycling equipment is now often equipped with heating elements that melt away adhesives or with magnets that strip away bits of metal.
An increasing number of recyclers are even able to deal with “less desirable” plastics like grocery bags or items made of mixed or unknown resins, as can be found in many toys and household items. This doesn’t mean you can toss anything you want into a blue bin (see Myth No. 1 above), but it does mean a wider range of products can be recycled than ever before.
Myth No. 4
Everything can only be recycled once anyway, so what’s the point?
In fact, many common items can be recycled over and over again, with substantial savings to energy and natural resources (see Myth No. 5 below).
Glass and metals, including aluminum, can effectively be recycled indefinitely, without a loss of quality. In fact, aluminum cans have consistently shown the highest value among recycled commodities and remain in high demand.
It’s true that each time paper is recycled, the tiny fibers that comprise it become a little more damaged. However, the quality of paper made from recycled content has improved dramatically over the past few years. The average piece of virgin printer paper can now be recycled five to seven times before the fibers get too degraded to be useful as new paper. After that, they can still be made into lower-grade paper-based materials like egg cartons or packaging inserts.
Plastic can often only be recycled once or twice into a new plastic product. Oftentimes this will be into something that doesn’t have to carry food or meet stringent strength requirements, such as lightweight household items. That’s because the polymers break down in the recycling process. However, engineers are always looking for new downstream uses, such as making all-purpose plastic “lumber” for decks or benches, or mixing plastics with asphalt for more durable road materials.
Myth No. 5
Recycling is, at best, big government overreach, or, at worst, a scam. Either way, it has no real benefits to the planet.
Since many people don’t know what happens to their recycling after they put it on the curb, it’s perhaps not surprising that skepticism would arise. Occasional news reports warn of garbage collectors tossing carefully sorted piles into the landfill, people often decry the fuel used by recycling trucks, and critics debate the merits of using public funding to start or support private recycling programs.
But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the benefits of recycling to the planet are clear. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new cans from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent; recycling paper saves about 60 percent; and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared to making those products from virgin materials. In fact, the energy saved by recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.
Recycling helps reduce litter, which has been known to spread disease like bacterial or fungal infections. And it creates jobs—some 1.25 million in the United States alone. While critics have argued that recycling can lull the public into a false sense of security in solving all the world’s environmental problems, most experts say it is a valuable tool in the fight against climate change, pollution, and other major issues our planet now faces.
And in many areas, recycling is not simply a government program but rather a dynamic industry with competition and ongoing innovation, from vending machine collection systems to clever new incentives for consumers and businesses. In many cases, recycling can actually be a net positive financial benefit.
National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.