What’s Wrong with Recycling in the United States?

On November 23, 2022

Recycling in the United States is broken. What can we do to fix these issues and and provide the united states with efficient and free recycling programs? By 2022, the amount of garbage generated by Americans had risen to 4.8 pounds per day from 2.60 pounds in the 60s. The problem is that while many Americans put items in their recycling bins, they do not end up getting recycled . This post explains why, and discusses possible solutions.

How to fix recycling in the United States?


There is often contamination in recycling, which occurs when defective products are thrown into recycling bins, or when dirty food containers are thrown into recycling bins. Contamination can result in large batches of recyclable materials not being able to be recycled, or certain materials not being suitable for recycling.

It is significant to note that many of the items gathered, including plastic straws, used bags, eating utensils, yogurt, and takeaway containers, cannot be recycled. They are usually incinerated, disposed of in landfills or discharged into the oceans. Even though incineration has been used in the past to produce energy, it has been associated with toxic emissions in the past.

Landfills emit hazardous pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane, volatile organic compounds, and plastic waste into the atmosphere and our oceans are being suffocated by plastic waste.

The ban imposed by China


Over the past few decades, China has recycled almost half of the world’s discarded materials, since its manufacturing industry was booming and it needed these materials in order to survive.

A total of 16 million tons of plastic, paper, cardboard, used wooden pallets, and metal were exported to China in 2018. It’s estimated that 30 percent of these mixed recyclables end up polluting China’s landscape and oceans because they’re contaminated with non-recyclable stuff. Each year, almost 2 million tons of plastic get end up in the ocean off China’s coast.

According to the National Sword policy of China, the country banned the import of most plastics and other materials that didn’t meet more stringent purity standards. After these countries banned plastic waste imports, the U.S. diverted its waste to Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal — countries with cheap labor and lax environmental regulations.

Almost one million tons of plastic waste go overseas every year, often to countries already overwhelmed by it. More than half of plastic that’s supposed to be recycled overseas isn’t usable, so it gets thrown away. As the result of plastic waste being exported to Southeast Asia, there has been a significant amount of pollution caused by toxic fumes from incineration, crop death, and respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution.

As a result of the loss of the market

Plastics as well as some types of cardboard, paper, and glass could not be sold in China, causing major disruptions to the U.S. recycling industry.

It is not viable for these facilities as well as cities if there is no market for the recycled material, as they must sell the materials in order to recoup their collection and transportation costs, and even then it is typically only a portion.

This has resulted in increased costs for U.S. processing facilities and municipalities in recycling waste or simply disposing of it.

The recycling programs of municipalities that cannot afford to pay more have been reduced to almost nothing. Several curbside recycling programs have been discontinued (though some have been reinstated after public protest), and many drop-off sites have been closed. Some programs have increased fees for residents and others have limited the types of materials that can be collected.

Today’s recycling situation in the United States

Due to the fact that U.S. recycling was dependent on China for so many years, we did not develop our domestic recycling infrastructure, so when the Chinese market disappeared, we had no economically or environmentally viable method of handling recycling.

There is no federal recycling program in the United States, which complicates the situation further. In the U.S., recycling is decided by individual communities, each of which decides whether or not to recycle. The many stakeholders with diverse interests around this topic need to find a common ground and set goals to keep from working against each other. It means companies working with communities, recyclers, haulers, manufacturers, and consumers.

What material actually gets recycled?

The EPA states in its 2018 report that only 94 million tons of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste Americans generated in 2018 were recycled or composted.

Papers and cardboard were recycled in 64 percent of cases, glass in 27 percent, and plastics in 8 percent of cases. It is possible to recycle glass and metal indefinitely; paper may only be recycled five to seven times before it becomes too degraded to be remade into “new” paper; plastic can only be recycled once or twice—and usually not into food containers—since the polymers break down during recycling.

Despite the ease of recycling thanks to single-stream recycling, about one-quarter of recyclables are contaminated when they are placed in one bin.

Plastic Reuse Programs

Due to the contamination of recycled plastic by other materials, consumer goods manufacturers are reluctant to buy recycled plastic unless it is as pure as virgin plastic.

In order to recycle plastic, it must be clean.

In spite of the fact that companies that manufacture and sell plastics promote recycling as a solution to the plastic pollution problem, six times as much plastic waste is incinerated as it is recycled. There are simply too many plastics being produced and not enough viable end markets for them. In addition, virgin plastic is now more affordable than recycled plastic due to the glut of natural gas and the increased production of petrochemicals in the U.S.

There are only a few types of plastic bottles in the U.S. that are truly recyclable, including PET (#1) and HDPE (#2). Despite this, only 29 percent of PET bottles are collected for recycling, and of this, only 21 percent are recycled due to contamination issues. In the past, China accepted plastics numbers 3 through 7, which were primarily used as fuel. The U.S. may collect plastics in the range of #3 – #7, but they are not usually recycled; they are typically burned, buried in landfills, or exported. In fact, Greenpeace is asking companies such as Nestle, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever to cease labeling their products made with plastics labelled as “recyclable” or it will file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on behalf of the company.

There is also a large amount of textile waste. In 2018, only 16 percent of textiles were recycled in the United States. Despite the fashion industry’s efforts to refashion old clothes and bring back vintage items, it’s not big enough to solve the problem.

In contrast, reusable packing materials like wooden pallets, Gaylord boxes, and IBC totes are booming. These materials hold value and are fit for reuse. Due to this many used packaging companies offer free pallet recycling, used cardboard box removal, and IBC Tote Pick Ups near you. Most the time they will even pay you for your used packaging.

Several cities and countries in northern Europe have used organic waste for energy, so food waste is the biggest source of waste by tonnage. U.S. waste to energy facilities exist, but they’ve been sited near vulnerable populations in the past. Even with advances in tech (and air pollution measures), there are still questions. As technology advances, though, and green energy searches ramp up in U.S. cities, this might become a more attractive option.”

How do we fix it?


It is estimated that global demand for paper and cardboard will grow by 1.5 percent a year, primarily because of e-commerce and the need for packaging. Recycled paper will be essential to meet this demand.There will be a demand for recycled paper and cardboard.

As a result of this, companies are attempting to enhance the quality of recycled plastic as well as incorporate it into the plastic products they produce since the global plastic recycling market is projected to grow by $14.74 billion between now and 2024. There are many applications for recycling plastic waste, especially PET and HDPE, including packaging, building and construction, electronics, automobiles, furniture, textiles, and more.

For recycling to be fixed, we need to develop a domestic market, which means improving the technology for sorting and recovering materials, incorporating more recycled materials into products, and ensuring their sale.

A good example of this is where institutions and cities require a percentage of recycled content in their purchasing, for example, 100 percent recycled paper, or building materials made from recycled materials. Changes in regulations, purchasing commitments, and enforcement can drive a growth in the demand for recycled content or reused content. Construction and demolition debris disposal can also be limited by institutions or governments to encourage recycling instead. They both create a stable system that allows for the growth of markets for recycled and reused materials, as well as processing facilities.

It will be economically feasible to expand recycling programs near you if recycling businesses have a reuse market where they can sell their materials for profit.

What cities and countries has recycling worked for?



These cities have set up free recycling programs and have been is successful:

San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, CA has set a zero waste goal for itself, and keeps 80 percent of its waste out of landfills. The city requires residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams, with blue bins for recyclables, green bins for compostables (the city diverts 80 percent of its food waste), and black bins for waste to be disposed of. Every San Francisco local event must offer recycling and composting, and food vendors must use compostable or recyclable containers.

Los Angeles, CA

With a goal to recycle 90 percent by 2025, Los Angeles recycles almost 80 percent of its waste. Restaurants are required to compost their food waste, and companies receive tax breaks for recycling. Additionally, an initiative called “Rethink LA” aims to educate residents about the importance of recycling and composting. There have also been grants and incentive programs put in place for local pallet yards and recycling companies. According to Columbia Climate School, Los Angeles recycles almost 80% of its waste – more than most European cities. The city is fully committed to a zero waste initiative, backed by a city-wide education campaign.

Austin, TX

The city of Austin, Texas, which aims to divert 75 percent of its waste by the end of the year, requires all properties to have recycling and composting facilities for their tenants and employees. Large construction projects are required to reuse or recycle at least half of the debris that they generate.

Seatle, WA

It is estimated that Germany recycles 56 percent of its trash by providing different colored bins for different types of glass and other objects. Using the Green Dot recycling system, the country indicates that the manufacturer contributes to the collection and recycling costs when a green dot appears on packaging materials. In order to have their packaging picked up, sorted, and recycled, these manufacturers pay a license fee to a waste collection company that is calculated according to weight.

Boise, ID

According to the city data, 98 percent of Boise residents recycle, thanks mainly to their extensive educational programs. As a result of China’s recycling ban, Boise was forced to come up with a new recycling program for previously non-recyclable plastic films that disrupted the city’s recycling.

South Korea

There is a 54 percent recycling rate in South Korea, including 95 percent of food waste. The country has dramatically reduced food waste by providing bins for organic waste that are weighed and residents are charged accordingly based on their weight. Recycling is provided for free, however there is a charge for disposing of other trash based on its weight.

Wales, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, and Taiwan also have good recycling rates. In order to hold people accountable for their waste, residents in Japan wash, remove labels, fold cartons, and label waste. In Kamikatsu, residents sort their trash into 34 categories with the goal of achieving zero waste by the end of the year.

Approximately 50% of Taiwan’s residential and commercial waste is recycled, and 80% is recycled industrially. Residents are informed when it is time to dump their trash when yellow trucks travel through neighborhoods playing music. White trucks follow behind carrying 13 different bins into which recyclables can be sorted. Upon receipt of recyclables, they are then processed into building materials by companies such as Miniwiz. Furthermore, smart recycling booths accept bottles and cans in exchange for transit card points.

Effective strategies to improve recycling in the united states

Education and Training 

Consumer awareness is necessary in order to minimize contamination of recyclable materials and landfill flow. Many companies even offer buy back programs for recyclable material In order to educate residents about the importance of reusing, recycling, and composting, as well as how to properly recycle in their respective communities, community events, campaigns, and brochures are necessary. It is imperative that they understand which items are recyclable and which are not.

Creating incentives and enforcing penalties for business and manufactures 

Residents and businesses can be incentivized to recycle and reduce waste by paying more if they discard more waste. Residents and companies can also be incentivized to divert more waste by receiving additional payments. Large manufactures should look into selling or recycling thier used packaging or shipping materials. There are many buy back programs in place where companies will actually pay you and remove used products such as pallets or gaylord boxes for free.

New Legislation in the United States

According to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, over 250 bills are being considered in over 37 states to deal with plastic pollution and recycling by 2020. A number of these measures include prohibiting single-use plastic and food ware, banning single-use bags and polystyrene, passing bottle bills, holding producers accountable for product disposal, and enacting other recycling laws.

A bill, the Break Free From Plastic Act, was introduced into Congress. In addition to banning single-use plastic bags and polystyrene, the bill requires packaging and food manufacturing companies to provide waste collection services; creates a national container deposit system, which charges a refundable deposit on all single-use beverage bottles; standardizes recycling bin labeling; and suspends permits for new plastic-producing facilities.

There are eight states that have banned single-use plastic bags. Chicago’s ban reduced plastic bag use in half; San Jose’s hybrid ban combined with a 10-cent charge for paper bags resulted in 62 percent more reusable bags being used. Taking a paper carry-out bag was charged 5 cents on March 1, after the city instituted a plastic bag ban.

According to the Sierra Club, container deposit laws or “bottle bills” that charge a refundable deposit on all single-use beverage bottles, whether they are plastic, metal or glass, are among the most effective methods of increasing recycling. Bottle bills are already in place in ten states, and six more are being considered.

Technological innovation

Advancements in sustainable and long term reusable packaging must be made.

There are a wide variety of companies that are seeking better ways to handle waste, from chemical recycling, which uses chemicals or high heat to break down plastic into its original components for re-use, to more convenient recycling methods.

Plastics that are not possible to recycle and contaminated are broken down to their molecular level. The plastics are then converted into high quality synthetic oils, chemicals, and other plastics. The company states that all the recycled plastic can be repurposed indefinitely.

While polypropylene is the second most common plastic in the world, it has only been recycled by one percent until now. When purified, it has the potential to be used in many more ways than it has been recycled into black or gray products, such as benches or car parts.

Consumer products are packaged in reusable and returnable loops by Loop. In Loop, buyers pay a deposit for containers that they receive from the store; once the containers are returned to Loop, a full refund is received. A number of grocery chains in France are using Loop, and Walgreens and Carrefour are planning to do the same in the U.S.

What you can do in your local community?

For us to solve our broader waste problem, we will need to look beyond recycling alone since it will only make economic sense to recycle a limited set of materials. The first step to reducing our consumption is to develop new business models that allow us to reuse materials. Our focus must remain on recycling even as we work to scale these types of solutions. This can include things like rental and service models.

  • Discover what materials and items your community recycles

  • Look into local reuse programs
  • Find out if your material is recyclable
  • Make sure you have a recycling bin on hand

  • Before recycling bottles, cans, and food containers, rinse them out

  • Consider buying items that contain recycled material or products that have been recycled

  • Use jars instead of plastic containers when storing products

  • Make sure you buy the largest size possible and distribute it at home

  • The bulk food aisles and farmer’s markets are good places to shop

  • Bags that can be reused can be used to store produce

  • Purchase items that can be used more than once. Avoid single use products

  • Bring waste-reducing legislation to your representatives’ attention


Feel free to contact us with any questions regarding recycling in your local community 

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