Recycling Is Going Through A Crisis — And It’s Partly Your Fault

The ability to recycle will likely be made less available because people don't know what they can and can't recycle.

Credit: Daily Journal of Commerce

For those that recycle more than the regular person, such as through breaking down boxes and gathering extra paper and putting them in the correct bins for trash day, this article is for you as well as anyone else that has never seen the value in making the effort to recycle. The recycling ‘industry’ is in trouble and it appears to be every person’s fault.

Well-meaning citizens that make attempts to recycle are mostly doing it wrong and causing more labor on the part of trash workers because they don’t know what’s not allowed to be recycled.

“Our contamination changes by the season,” said Mike Taylor, Waste Management’s director of recycling operations at a facility in Maryland.

In spring, they see disposed hoses and in winter they see strings of broken Christmas lights, both of which get entangled in the sorting machine and cause workers to stop the giant jaws and manually unwrap the strings. Every day of the year the workers come across dirty diapers, styrofoam peanuts, syringes, containers with old food, and plastic shopping bags that are not recyclable when coming from a household. It’s this excess of products that employees work to sort out everyday because people don’t know what can and cannot be recycled.

Credit: Waste Management

The problem at hand is this: recently, the value of recycled waste has plummeted over the last five years and the industry is struggling to justify keeping their programs alive because the cost of labor outweighs the payout. A study by the State Recycling Program in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality found that in 2011, a ton of mixed recyclable material was worth $180, but in most recent times was only worth $100.

The causes of this decline in value can be attributed to a slew of things, ranging from a drop in newspaper readership and low oil prices. Since cheap oil means it’s cheaper for companies to produce plastic bottles for their products, they’re less likely to turn to recycled plastic to make their bottles with. Declining newspaper subscribers means less papers are being made, decreasing the demand for reclaimed paper fiber. It all comes together to form the crisis that is occurring within the recycling industry.

Though recycling does have other benefits, such as reducing the amount of waste that finds its way into landfills, companies just aren’t seeing the return for it like they used to. In the U.S., taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for waste management in this area, whereas many European countries put the burden on companies to safely recover and dispose of used items. For example, syringes that pose a huge risk to employees sorting through recyclables are actually only distributed via prescription with a return package so that patients can safely bring their syringes back to the facility rather than randomly disposing of them.

Since one of the biggest problems at the citizen-level is contamination of recycling bins with items that cannot be recycled, some cities are cracking down on education to inform citizens of what can and cannot be put in their bins. The best thing to do would be to check out this list from Waste Management to educate yourself find out how you can be a better recycler and make the jobs easier for workers, therefore helping to ensure that programs like these aren’t eliminated.

Another great option for people really concerned about how much trash they’re throwing away everyday is to consider lessening your waste altogether. There are many people who live a waste-free lifestyle that have found ways to take care of themselves without creating any additional waste, and we can learn from these people to find out ways we can curb our own waste that fits our lifestyle. By nipping waste in the bud, we can make sure that less is going to the landfills and recycling facilities every year.

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