When we explain our recycling guidelines to people, they are often surprised and say things like, “In our town, they recycling all plastics #1 through #7.” This is based on a misconception about the difference between what is accepted and what is recycled, and there is a huge difference indeed.
- What should you recycle and what should go in the trash?
- Why is that different from back home?
- Isn’t it better to put it in recycling just in case?
- Is this true? How can I learn more?
- Clean, uncoated cardboard
- Clean newspaper, office paper, phone books, etc.
- Clean glass jars and bottles
- Aluminum cans, pure aluminum foil. Aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials in the world. It takes 95% less energy to recycling aluminum than to make more from scratch and the resulting product is just as good as the virgin material. If nothing else, recycle this.
- Clean steel cans.
- Clean #1 and #2 bottles without full-length sleeves, round tubs and pails. No other plastics, no clamshells, blister packs, black microwave trays even if labelled #1 or #2.
Put These in the Trash:
- Paper: Coffee cups, take-out food containers, paper plates, cash-register receipts, paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, wax-coated cardboard, pizza boxes, frozen food boxes, label backing sheets; or paper coated with food, wax, foil or plastic. No waxy refrigerator cartons such as milk & juice cartons or shelf-stable cartons such as soup, soy milk, juice & wine cartons
- Glass: drinking glasses, window glass.
- Aluminum: if you aren’t sure it’s “real” foil, trash it. Wish-cycling an aluminum composite (e.g. Tetra pack) could contaminate a load.
- Plastic: All plastics except #1 and #2 bottles, round, food-grade containers and tubs. That means that all of the following go in the trash: small bits of plastic, almost all packaging, yogurt containers, clamshells, blister packs, all plastic bags. Even though marked as #1 or #2, black microwave trays are not actually recyclable either.
Batteries are special
Please leave spent batteries on the counter. California law prohibits batteries in either recycling or trash. They have to be handled specially.
In my town they accept all plastics. Why not here?
Plastics #3 to #7 were never actually recycled. Up until 2018, plastics 3-7 were sent to China and mostly incinerated or landfilled. However, large amounts of them washed into the ocean. Much of the ocean plastic is the result of all of us well-meaning recyclers putting plastics 3-7 into the recycling for 20 or 30 years.
In 2018, China stopped accepting the world’s garbage, but the US and UK still export most plastic waste to poorer countries where they often cannot properly handle them.
The problem is that most plastics cannot be turned back into usable material. As the CEO of waste-management giant Recology has written:
For five years, Recology employed a chemical engineer with 25 years of plastics manufacturing experience. He was given the mission to find something that we can do to with single-use plastic waste; his work netted no practical results… there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.
That sad truth is that, for the most part, we were simply told a comfortable myth by plastic manufacturers that made it feel good to put the plastic in the blue bin instead of the brown one, but we likely did more harm than good in doing so.
Now China won’t take our trash and 180 countries have agreed to the Basel Convention agreeing that OECD countries will not send their plastic trash to non-OECD countries. However, the United States and the United Kingdom (as a result of Brexit) are not signatories to this agreement. The result is that we still send our low-grade plastics to poorer countries or, as The Guardian reveals, simply landfill it from Los Angeles to Florida.
A Guardian investigation reveals that cities around the country are no longer recycling many types of plastic dropped into recycling bins. Instead, they are being landfilled, burned or stockpiled. From Los Angeles to Florida to the Arizona desert, officials say, vast quantities of plastic are now no better than garbage.
Of course the article is wrong when it says this plastic is now no better than garbage. In fact, it never was.
Isn’t it better to put it in recycling just in case?
Actually wish-cycling is worse than throwing it in the trash.
- Contamination. First and foremost, you can contaminate the entire load, leading it to be landfilled even though it has recyclable materials. So wish-cycling can be like a form of negative recycling that negates the effort of getting high-quality materials into the blue bin.
- Energy cost and carbon footprint. Our trash needs to be shipped only 52 miles to our landfill, while “recycling” needs to be shipped hundreds, even thousands, perhaps across the ocean. It’s not even clear it’s worth it for good plastic, but it is definitely not worth it for plastic that just gets landfilled at its faraway destination. It’s just an expensive trip around the globe for what is actually trash.
- Ocean plastic. Our local landfill is a modern facility that sequesters toxic materials and covers the trash with dirt at the end of each day. Of course, some plastic escapes, but little of it makes its way into waterways and oceans. If, instead, I put my #3 plastic in the blue bin, it gets a long trip to an open dump in Malaysia, where it has a high probability of ending in the ocean. It really is worse. This opinion is shared by the New York Times: “Though many American communities dutifully collect plastic for recycling, much of the scrap has been sent overseas, where it frequently ends up in landfills, or in rivers, streams and the ocean.”
- Fairness. Is it fair for us to export our pollution to poor communities in foreign countries? Strangely, through decades of indoctrination, it feels like the right thing to do, but it really isn’t until such time as domestic recycling capabilities improve.
Is this really true? Can I read more?
This is a topic I have been reading about and following for years, but I am not an expert. It’s just what I’ve learned from a variety of publicly-available sources, corroborated by what I hear from a friend who attends conferences on waste management, zero-waste efforts and recycling. But if you have a reliable source that contradicts, corrects, updates or adds to this, I’d love to hear it. My goal is not to take a position, but to find and share the best available information.
How can I learn more?
- For a quick and fun overview, see John Oliver’s take which seems to mostly agree with the more “serious” sources I read.
- A 2020 report from Greenpeace analyzed the 367 material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the United States.
- A March, 2021, article from the New York Times reveals that the US is still shipping much of it’s non-recyclable plastic to poor countries with poor waste management facilities even though 180 countries have signed a ban on the practice. The reason is simple, the US did not sign the accord.
- The Guardian ran a good article about how much “recycling” is actually landfilled (quoted above).
- A brief, clear overview from Frontline. Frontline points out that “recyclable” does not necessarily mean better — some recyclable materials take much more energy than their non-recyclable counterparts, even if recycling is taken into account.
- A sobering perspective from the CEO of Recology, quoted above.
- Live Science has another article on how much actually gets recycled.
- The New York Times article, “Countries Tried to Curb Trade in Plastic Waste. The U.S. Is Shipping More,” has some details on the Basel Convention and the US practice of shipping plastic waste to Malaysia and Kenya, under pressure from US plastic manufacturers. The Guardian discusses a similar situation with respect to the UK as well as other articles about the Basel Convention.