The Recycling Dilemma: Is My Recycling Really Being Recycled?

Are you an avid recycler? Do you take an extra few minutes out of your day to rinse that glass kombucha bottle or plastic yogurt cup before tossing it in the bin? I, too, have been a diligent recycler and believer in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra since I was a child. Recycling feels like a part of who I am—as natural as stretching upon waking. If you feel the same, I am very sorry to say that I have some sad news to share with you. Not all of your recycling is being recycled. 

Single-Stream Recycling 101

Before diving into the details, first let’s briefly talk about how the recycling system works. Here in Jacksonville, we participate in single-stream recycling. This means that we toss our different recyclable materials into a single bin, rather than sorting them prior to being collected. A benefit of single-stream recycling is lower collection costs, but the processing costs are higher since facilities must sort materials. Another advantage to single-stream recycling is that it increases household recycling rates, since self sorting isn’t required. While this makes it easy for the average person to recycle, it also leads to “aspirational” recycling and high contamination rates. People will often toss an item into the recycling bin hoping that it is recyclable without verifying that it is. Everything from bubble wrap to bowling balls to car seats have been pulled from recycling center conveyor belts. When unnoticed, these items jam the machines and hinder the recycling process. Not all recyclers are great at rinsing their items first either, allowing food particles and trash to enter the recycling stream. One non-recyclable or food-covered item mixed with recyclables can render the whole batch contaminated. Locally, floridarecycles.org says that 30% of Florida’s recycling is contaminated. According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, 25% of recycling nationwide is contaminated. Unfortunately, in 2018, high contamination levels led China to refuse recyclables from the US and other countries.

What Does China Have To Do With This?

Prior to 2018, China was the world’s largest buyer of recyclables from the US, Australia, Canada and parts of Europe. That’s right, your kombucha bottle and little yogurt cup used to travel all the way from Florida to China to be processed! But due to environmental and health concerns caused by multiple-million metric tons of recycling imported from around the world, the Chinese government instituted a policy stating they will only accept foreign materials with a very low contamination rate of 0.5%. They have also completely denied certain recyclables, including mixed paper and most plastics. While this is wonderful for their people and environment, this drastic change in policy has left our local waste management companies with piles of recycling. They now have the choice to pay higher rates to get rid of their materials or dump them. Usually, the cheapest option for disposal is to simply cart everything off to the landfill, which certainly is not where most of us believe our recycling is going. 

To be clear, not all of your recycling is going to the landfill. But since China has refused our waste, domestic recycling companies are tossing out more than they used to.

What Can I Do?

When I first learned that China stopped taking most of our recycling, admittedly I threw my hands in the air and wondered, “what’s the point?” The thought of my recycled items wasting away in a landfill, emitting methane and contributing to our warming Earth, was discouraging. But after further research and contemplation, I realized there is a lot you and I can do on the individual level to reduce contamination and also mitigate excessive recyclables from being diverted to landfills.

Improve your recycling habits.

        • Check out The City of Jacksonville’s website here for specific details on what is and isn’t recyclable in our area.
        • Once you know what can be recycled, recycle it properly! Thoroughly rinse and dry items before tossing them in the bin; be sure items are free from food and grease.
        • Do NOT bag your recyclables. Plastic bags clog the machinery and contaminate batches.
        • When in doubt about an object’s recyclability, throw it out. 

In addition to upping our recycling game, we should also be revisiting that phrase I love so much: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It seems that we lost sight of “reduce and reuse” over the years, don’t you think? So much of our world is disposable and cheaply made. It is often less expensive to buy a new item than it is to get it repaired, just like it is frequently cheaper for companies to make items out of new materials rather than recycled ones. This information can be discouraging as well, but there are easy things we can do. The best part is, many of these solutions are not only good for our planet but they are good for your wallet too!

Reduce your consumption. 

This can be tough when we are constantly inundated with ads for the latest tech, fashion trends and the newest “must have” thing. But in order to create less waste, you must consume less. Full stop. In 2015, Americans generated 262.4 million tons of waste, which averages to nearly 5 pounds per person, per day!

Although I am not perfect, I truly try to avoid frivolous purchases. I am extremely conscientious about bringing new items into my home, which is an exercise in mindfulness. If you must purchase something, ensure that the new item either is  genuinely needed or is replacing a similar item that is being recycled or tossed.

Reuse what you have or what others no longer need.

Avoid disposable or one-time use items. Ask your barista if you can bring your own cup rather than using a paper/plastic one. (This may not be allowed right now due to Covid, but it is good information to have in the future.)

Consider buying items second-hand like clothes, household goods, phones, etc. Pre-loved items have the benefit of being more affordable, and the life of the item is extended thus keeping it out of the landfill for longer. The EPA states that landfills comprise 17.7% of all U.S. methane emissions—that’s a lot of rotting garbage.

Is The State Government Helping?

Here in Florida, we are guilty of not recycling as well as we should. With the Energy, Climate Change and Economic Security Act of 2008, The Florida Legislature established a statewide weight-based recycling goal of 75% by 2020. The Legislature also established benchmark recycling goals: 40% by 2012, 50% by 2014, 60% by 2016 and 70% by 2018. Although Florida achieved the goals for 2012 and 2014, we did not meet the 60% goal in 2016. Florida’s 2018 recycling rate was 49%, missing the 70% goal. This report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection states:

“Recycling in Florida, the United States, and the world has changed significantly over the last 10 years. Many of the challenges we currently face with recycling have occurred as a result of changes in collection methods, recycling markets and the types and quality of materials acceptable for recycling.

Given these challenges and others detailed in the report, the current practices in Florida are not expected to increase the recycling rate. The recycling rate has continued to decline since 2016 to the state’s current recycling rate of 49%. Without significant changes to our current approach, 75% does not appear to be achievable. However, based on ongoing discussions with Florida recycling stakeholders, Florida’s recycling program for 2020 and beyond could transition to a Sustainable Materials Management approach that would more effectively track environmental benefits.

The Legislature could consider laws that allow for the transition to a methodology that incorporates alternative life-cycle metrics; i.e., sustainable materials management goals into Florida’s recycling efforts. While no one single goal can measure the full environmental impact of the materials used from cradle to grave, multiple goals can be set, based upon the environmental attribute(s) that are most important to the state.”

Be More Mindful 

The Florida Legislature appears to be moving in the right direction and facing these challenges with new solutions. It is clear that China’s refusal to continue to accept our contaminated recycling has altered the state of recycling as we know it. Americans—especially Floridians with our vast coastlines and precious marine life—must really begin to self-assess and consider our direct impact on the environment. There are little steps each day that we can take to minimize or be more mindful about our consumption. Head down to the comments below and share with us what you’re doing to reduce, reuse and recycle. Let’s inspire one another to do better. And remember, don’t forget to rinse and dry your yogurt cup!

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