When I first lobbied for recycling more household waste in the 1980s, few kinds of rubbish could be handled by recycling facilities—if you or your department of public works could find one. A lot has changed for the better since then. According to the economic consulting firm John Dunham & Associates, by 2017 the US recycling industry had an economic impact of $117 billion and directly or indirectly employed more than 534,500 workers to collect, haul, process, and furnish facilities, equipment, transportation, and supplies. But how well are towns, cities, states, and the industry handling all the stuff we keep throwing out, and what’s a citizen to do about it?
Last year, the town of Belmont, Massachusetts, just west of Boston, switched vendors to boost trash collection to new heights of automation. Within a month, its new contractor had distributed two massive two-wheeled receptacles to every household: a black one with a 64-gallon capacity for non-recyclables, and a bigger blue-and-green 96-gallon one—large enough to stuff a couple of non-dismembered bodies into — for recyclables. The town instructed residents to wheel out their carts and line them along the curb on pickup day, front facing the street, with lids closed. Citizens dutifully obey, emplacing the sturdy sentinels to form temporary no-parking zones. And in winter, when snow mounds up on curbs, the carts make driving along narrow streets even more of a slalom.
My household’s carts are rarely more than a quarter full. As they are a pain to rumble out to the curb, I’m sometimes tempted to deposit our one or two waste bags in a neighbor’s cart. But that somehow feels more transgressive that it should, and, as many residents top theirs off and some keep going, there might not be room in it. It’s hard to imagine how one family can possibly generate that much solid waste, but a lot of them do. Such overflowing towers of trash are officially prohibited, but they get emptied anyway, with occasional spillage for critters to root through.
Trash gets picked up every week; recycling every other week on the same day. Two sets of towering garbage trucks lumber through the streets with retractable robot arms that grasp one-inch-thick steel bars on the bins to tip them into their hoppers, and then set the empties down with a resounding thud. As the new carts plus contents are too heavy for most mortals to lift, the robots are necessary. And, whereas each truck formerly had a driver plus one or two sanitation workers to pick up and empty our old trash barrels, now only the drivers remain. Even aided by cameras and other sensors to deploy the arms, the driver has more to do than before, and the workers that formerly rode with them are ostensibly looking for jobs, perhaps repairing robot arms.
The new receptacles are unwieldy, hulking eyesores that clog curbs and take up more space to stow than the barrels they replaced, which either now clutter yards and driveways or were pitched into the waste stream. The new bins’ greater capacity encourages residents to consume more stuff and, being free, deprive stores that sell trash barrels of accustomed revenues, their distant supplier having cut out those middlemen. On the plus side, we now have single-stream recycling, meaning we can chuck all our recyclable items, including paper products, into the same bin. No more sorting conundrums like “Does this juice carton go with paper or plastic?” Nonetheless, such convenience comes at a price.
After decades of proselytizing by environmental pressure groups and citizen activists, the public and municipal officials are starting to get real—even enthusiastic—about recycling, nudging consumer product companies, food processors, and food vendors to adopt more environmentally friendly practices. But while less waste goes to waste than used to, much of it—particularly plastics—poses difficult challenges to recyclers as the composition of the waste stream has changed. Mostly due to drastic declines in newspaper readership, there’s a lot less newsprint being tossed out, while discarded corrugated cardboard (think home delivery detritus) is way up. Cardboard can be transformed into more of the same and building materials. For paper, less newsprint consumption means a smaller market for recycled paper fiber. As waste paper becomes less valuable, fewer recycling haulers want to handle it, and those that do may charge municipalities more for the privilege.
Glass bottles and jars are down, increasingly replaced by plastic ones. Plastic bottles and food containers are flimsier than they once were and many of them are made of lower-grade plastics that cannot be economically recycled into other products. And because they are so much lighter, a ton of them (the unit of measure for valuing most recyclable materials) takes up way more space than glass, metal, or PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a type of clear polyester many bottles and containers are made of), making them more arduous and expensive to process. Despite possibly leaching endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the sturdier PET containers are highly and profitably recyclable. To discover which type of plastic you may be dealing with you must refer to a resin code, usually imprinted within a triangle on the bottom of containers. The chart below identifies the seven most common resins, what they are used for, and what types of products they can be recycled into. PET’s code number is one.
Confounding this regime, many containers for food and consumer products imported from abroad don’t have resin identifiers, causing them to be diverted by recyclers to landfills and incinerators. In addition, many food processors are adopting even lighter packaging, such as thin-film pouches. Think about potato chips, which once came in wax or coated paper bags; now many are sealed in metalized Mylar (PET) pouches. While they create smaller quantities of waste, pouches aren’t a win for recycling because there’s less substance to make new things out of and what there is may have layers of different materials that can’t be economically separated. And so, much packaging gets buried or burned. In a landfill, its half-life is measured in centuries, if not millennia. Combusted in a furnace, it fills the air we breathe with all sorts of exciting chemicals and metals. And even if recyclable, many plastics expose humans to allergens, immune suppressants, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens with effects such as adiposity, insulin resistance, and decreased levels of sex hormones, harming children most of all.
Those nice heavy-duty black takeout food containers—and in fact all black plastics—aren’t recyclable, by the way. As sturdy as they are, they end up in landfills because the scanners that are used to automate sorting can’t see into them to determine what they are made of (usually PET). If you’re presented with one, feel free to wash and reuse it, and request that the vendor switch to paper containers like Chinese food boxes.
And then there is food wrap, lightweight plastic grocery and produce bags, bubble wrap, and those puffy little pillows that you find nestled in delivery parcels that get thrown or blown into oceans and waterways, strangling or immobilizing marine animals. Nearly nine million tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans every year, much of which nature has kindly accumulated in five giant garbage patches around the planet, as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others have reported. The largest of these, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and the US mainland, is the size of France. Nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanup explains that, over time, plastic items degrade into tiny motes of “microplastic” that marine organisms ingest and pass up the food chain, eventually to people.
Plastic bags aren’t suitable for recycling but many are disposed of as if they were, along with flimsy, clear clam-shell produce containers and crinkly beverage bottles—all low-grade materials that can’t be given a new life, despite being labeled with an acceptable resin number. They must be separated at the plant to prevent grinders from seizing up and reusable byproducts from being polluted.
To add to our confusion, different localities have inconsistent rules governing what materials are accepted for recycling. You might be told not to recycle glassware along with bottles. Lids may or may not need to be removed from bottles and jars. Tinfoil or empty pill bottles may or may not be accepted. Certain resin identifiers may be excluded, as may small metal items and scraps. Even so-called “compostable bioplastic” containers, tableware, and utensils are likely to be unwanted. Sadly, although made from plant material such as corn and sugar cane, they won’t degrade in your compost heap; processing plants with higher-temperature digesters are required to break them down. Clear bioplastics made with PLA (polylactic acid, identified by a green stripe) are compostable but not recyclable. When consumers recycle them along with petroleum-based plastics, recyclers must sort them out. If that isn’t feasible, the batch is declared contaminated and sent to a landfill.
A good source of facts and figures on recycling in the US is “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015,” a publication by the EPA that quantifies trends in material generation and disposal methods between 1960 and 2015. That document reveals that paper products have, by far, the highest rate of recycling: 66 percent, by weight, in 2015. The worst? Plastic, at 9.1 percent. The Waste 360 website is also great for interactive charts and graphs illustrating what gets recycled and what doesn’t.
The chart below shows that, despite a leveling off of per-capita waste creation, our total waste production continues to climb.
You wanna help? Bring reusable bags with you when you go shopping. Top off a durable water bottle with filtered tap water and take it with you when you leave home. Don’t buy bottled water or any beverage in flimsy bottles. (In any event, bottled water costs more per gallon than gasoline and may not be all that pure.) Tell your grocer you want to take home produce in paper bags or cardboard containers, not those clear plastic ones that are so hard to wrench open and have no other uses. Better yet, bring reusable produce bags with you when you shop. Also, ask the butcher counter to wrap meat, poultry and fish in paper rather than shrink-wrapped polystyrene trays. Drink beer and soda from cans or glass bottles. Lobby for “bottle bills” that require deposits on drink containers and for bans on thin plastic grocery bags. Bring your own liquid containers to cafés. Compost food scraps and dispose of what you can’t in paper sacks rather than in plastic garbage bags whose sole mission is to be buried or burned.And when you need durable goods, find used appliances, furniture, clothes, and electronics on Craigslist or Freecycle or at rummage sales. Ten of my 12 cars were pre-owned. Each one avoided the junkyard for up to ten years and helped keep my auto mechanic in business. Join environmental groups working to reduce the waste steam and ban stuff like Styrofoam containers, plastic bags, cutlery, and straws. Good progress is being made in banning or cutting down on non-reusable plastic items and toxic ingredients like bisphenol-A (BPA). Even so, there’s only so much a person, an organization, or even the recycling industry itself can do to stem the tsunami of product containers, more and more of which are of such complex or exotic construction that they cannot be recycled at all. These sorts of trashy innovations have to be curtailed.
The only reason for having a 96-gallon recycling cart is to hold all those boxes and containers that consumable products come in. If mountains of unusable refuse are the necessary price of economic growth, we need to rethink the whole economy, starting with home economics. Reduce mail orders. Buy locally made products from local retailers and pay them with cash or checks. (They’ll thank you.) Choose and demand low-tech packaging, preferably plant-based, that can be recycled, downcycled, or composted. Bone up on which plastics can harm your health. Reuse empty containers that are hard to recycle to the extent it’s safe to do so. Walk, cycle, or take transit to the store and of course, don’t forget your shopping bags.