Its America Recycles Day. Is the United States set up for recycling success?

PIRGs's picture
Thursday, November 15, 2018

While a recent survey says that 94 percent of Americans support recycling and 74 percent say it should be a priority, the national average recycling rate is only 34.7 percent. Almost two-thirds of our waste ends up in landfills, incinerators, or as litter blighting the environment, often because recycling is prohibitively difficult for people with the best of intentions. Some states, however, are more recycling-friendly than others. On America Recycles Day, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and several of its state affiliates are releasing reports detailing recycling efforts at the local level.

The recycling landscape is changing quickly and revealing some serious problems with our waste management. Our report shows which cities and counties are doing a great job of responding to those changes and setting great examples for the rest of the country to follow,” said Alex Truelove, zero waste director for U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

Some of the factors that inhibit effective recycling include:

The China effect

  • China has effectively stopped accepting refuse from the United States. With no one else willing to buy our recyclables, they have been piling up in sorting facilities throughout the U.S. This disruption has increased service costs, decreased revenue, and in some cases led recycling collectors to stop their services. This could be alleviated if state and local governments and private enterprise invest in the type of reprocessing previously provided by China.

A lack of curbside compost pickup

  • Most Americans do not have curbside compost, even though more than 30 percent of household waste -- including food waste, yard waste and most contaminated paper products -- is compostable. Composted organic waste is a nutrient-rich resource for gardens, parks, and open spaces. Composting can also curb greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. Unsurprisingly, cities with municipal compost programs tend to have much higher recycling rates.

The proliferation of single-use plastics

  • Municipalities throughout the country have introduced and passed ordinances restricting single-use plastic items such as straws, polystyrene foam containers, and plastic bags, all of which can harm the environment and are difficult to recycle. Reducing the use of these items would ease the burden on recyclers and other waste management organizations while encouraging the use of more recyclable and compostable materials.

“Reducing consumption should be our number one priority to achieve a society with zero net waste, but recycling and composting are two important pieces of the puzzle,” said Truelove. “People want to recycle, and we owe it to our kids to make sure they don’t inherit a planet drowning in trash. We know how to improve our recycling infrastructure and we’re seeing some success at the local level. Now, we need to just do it nationwide."

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