A stunning 292.4 million tons of waste was generated in 2018, which breaks down to almost 5 pounds per person every day. Of that waste, 94 million tons were recycled or composted.  What happens to the rest?

  • Over 146 million tons end up in landfills.
  • About 35 million tons is burned to create a source of energy.
  • The remaining is for animal feed, wastewater treatment, biochemical, or anaerobic processes.

Many items that end up in the landfill don’t really belong there. Problems occurring where people contaminate the recycling stream are common. Around a quarter of recyclable materials end up in landfills due to improper recycling habits.

Food waste goes into the trash when it could be composted, and that adds to the issue. A more recent issue has been lithium rechargeable batteries going into the trash and causing fires in dump trucks. All of this is becoming a headache for waste districts. The government has several initiatives in place to make recycling easier. Take a closer look at what’s changing across the U.S.

Measures to Reduce Contamination

Reducing contamination is one of the first steps to fixing the recycling system. The necessary step here is to make it easier for people to recycle. Have you ever had a black plastic food tray and been unsure whether it goes into the trash or your recycling container? You’re not alone. Back in 2019, a survey of 2,000 Americans found that 60% of those participants were unsure how to recycle properly.

Here’s one of the biggest problems with recycling today. The items that one town’s recycling facility collects may not be the same as another. It can cause a lot of confusion.

For example, in New York, a grease-stained cardboard pizza box is recyclable. In neighboring Vermont, they must go into the trash. Every state seems to have its own rules, and that can make it tricky for people who are moving to a new state. The things you’re used to recycling are no longer recyclable and vice versa.

In California, food waste is not allowed in normal household trash. It all must be composted and many districts offer curbside pick-up of that waste. The same food composting rule is in effect in Vermont, but the state’s main waste haulers do not offer curbside pick-up. Residents are supposed to compost scraps in their own yards or bring food waste to a collection point. However, bears and scavengers looking at the food scraps can create new problems, so rural customers without pick-up service are told to put their food scraps in the trash instead.

During the pandemic, cardboard became another issue for many districts. People started ordering more items online and having them delivered to their homes. This led to a massive increase in cardboard recycling, and it caused an issue for districts. The end result was that they decided to stop accepting cardboard in curbside pick-up. Residents who wanted to recycle their cardboard had to find a drop-off location.

Keeping up with the changes is challenging. People are confused about what they can and cannot recycle, so more ends up in the trash than should be or recycling streams get contaminated by items that are not recyclable in that area. It’s a real problem that the government is trying to end.

In order to better educate community members on the things that are and are not recyclable, grants for educational resources are available as part of the Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling grant program. Between 2022 and 2026, $55 million per year is set aside to help communities establish stronger recycling programs by upgrading facilities, consumer education, and improving materials management.

Promote a Circular Economy

Recycling was never supposed to be about making money. When recycling started back in WWII, it was about reusing materials like rags, scrap metal, and rubber. If you reuse, you reduce the need to produce new materials. When curbside pick-up started in the 1970s, it was meant to stop filling up landfills with things that could be reused. It’s helped, but it’s also a costly endeavor.

When China stopped taking many U.S. recyclables in 2017, it became a costly endeavor for recycling plants. Items must be separated, and only some items have enough monetary value. If a recycling facility isn’t making money collecting recyclables, there’s no way to pay the staff and fuel and maintain the trucks needed to haul trash and recyclables.

If it costs more to sort contaminated recyclables, facilities have little choice but to drop the program. Clemson, South Carolina, is one town that announced they were ceasing all curbside recycling on August 1, 2022. The city decided to stop all curbside recycling due to the declining market. People have to find where to go to recycle on their own. If a person lacks transportation or time, they’re more likely to throw items into the trash, which defeats the goal of reducing the number of unnecessary items in landfills.

Improve Markets for Recycled Materials

Another big step for recycling is to make the recycled materials marketable. That’s another part of the U.S. Government’s plan. If people learn the importance of purchasing items made with recycled materials, it supports a circular economy and boosts the value of recyclables.

Metals are just one recycled material seeing increased prices. As of August 15th, here are a few of the national averages.

  • Aluminum – 60 cents per pound
  • Copper – $2.50 per pound
  • Steel – $147 per ton

For plastics, prices vary greatly. PETE is selling for about $1.26 per pound while HDPE (#2) and PVC (#3) are in the 50 to 60 cent per pound range. Glass bottles pay around 10 cents per pound. Finally, cardboard is about $75 per ton, newspapers are $26 per ton, and mixed paper is $11 per ton.

When you have to have workers separating the different recyclables first and ensuring they’re not contaminated with stuck-on food, mildew or mold, etc., it can become a costly venture. If the value increases, it’s easier to hire the team needed to separate recyclables.

Boost Efficiency in Recycling Plants

Recycling is a three-part system. First, you have the items collected at homes and businesses or delivered to a recycling facility. If the district is picking up items through a curbside service, you have to have the trucks going from home to home and emptying the bins into a truck to deliver to the facility.

At the processing facility, paper, metals, glass, and plastic items are separated. If anything is contaminated and has cross-contaminated other items, they must be picked out and sent to a trash truck to go to the landfill. Items that are recyclable are sent to secondary processing facilities like plastics reclaimers where items are ground into pieces and readied to be melted down and reused.

Plants need to be upgraded with modern technology to ensure this system works effectively. Machines are much faster than people, so this can increase how many recyclables are processed each day. Boosting the efficiency of recycling plants is essential.

You might believe that facilities keep up with the times, but the largest recycling center in Vermont hasn’t seen any upgrades in almost 30 years. It was built to process 2,083 tons per month, but it’s currently processing around 3,916 tons each month. Across the U.S., many districts are facing these issues. With government funding to help with the necessary improvements in the infrastructure, efficiency will improve and that will make it easier to recycle.

It all starts with people doing their part. Make sure you know what you can recycle and where to recycle it. Whether you have boxes of old books or the flooring from your recent renovation, recycle them properly. Recycle Nation’s handy recycling guide helps you find the right ways to recycle your items.