Today is America Recycles Day! The origins of ARD are 26 years old, when Texas Recycling Day began in 1994 as the brainchild of Kevin Tuerff and Valerie Davis, two employees of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who wanted to promote recycling through a six week campaign to boost Texas recycling in the state. When the two left their state jobs and moved into a PR and advertising agency, they suggested that TRD become America Recycles Day. The Day became a reality in 1997, with annual themes that focused on buying recycled content, educating households about recycling, and encouraging recycling pledges.
Fast forward to November 15, 2021, we are now twenty-four years ahead of that first America Recycles Day.
Recycling has some history of success in the US - with a rate of 7% in 1960 and a current rate of about 34% today. An EPA study also found that recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 681,000 jobs and $37.8 billion in wages.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that our current, nationwide recycling rate of 34% is pitifully low.
Not only is this an embarrassing waste of resources that can be turned back into useful materials, it is also an environmental justice issue as BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted by both landfill emissions and leaching and pollution. Continued effort and investment - by municipalities, states, federal government, corporations and consumers - must be made to increase participation in and effectiveness of our recycling program.
We hope America Recycles Day 2021 helps to propel our country forward at a much more accelerated rate, with the goal of achieving 50%+ recycling rates by 2025.
With this in mind, we are highlighting four important tips for anyone eager to recognize America Recycles Day and help increase recycling rates in their local community.
Review and Share Three Common Recycling Myths, Busted
We've have seen that recycling has really come under fire in the last few years.
While we appreciate that some of these efforts are aimed at ensuring people recognize that recycling should come AFTER source reduction and reuse, we worry that the polarizing views being shared (and often untrue statements being made) may be hindering the broader environmental imperative of increasing our nation's recycling rates and improving our recycling infrastructure.
People who believe these recycling misconceptions basically think - why bother recycling anyway, may as well throw it in the landfill. It is frustrating to see well intentioned organizations taking such a binary and aggressive view that ultimately encourages behavior that is counter to the needs of environmental progress.
Because of this, we have *really* appreciated the efforts of EcoCycle, our community’s a nonprofit waste management provider on a mission to build zero waste communities in Boulder County, Colorado and nationwide.
Last week, in honor of America Recycles Day, they shared and busted a series of recycling myths - myths that directly harm communities’ efforts to maximize recycling rates and ensure recyclers can be financially viable (something that can only happen if MRFs receive enough recyclables from their communities and can sell those materials at a viable price point).
Here, we share three myths they posted as we believe our EcoAlly community can benefit from them and may find it valuable to share these with their own networks.
Have you heard the misconception that recycling uses more energy, more resources, and costs more money than it saves? The whole point of recycling is to conserve resources, water, energy, and to keep the value of recyclable materials circulating throughout the economy. There are also considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions when manufacturers use recycled materials.
When we talk about the impact of recycling, we must make sure we’re looking not only at the impacts downstream—meaning where the item goes when the consumer is done with it—but also the impacts upstream, or before it gets to the consumer. Most people who believe that recycling uses more money, energy, and resources than it saves forget about this part. When a material is made from virgin resources, we must consider the impacts of where that natural resource was sourced from, how it was extracted, how it was refined and turned into a product, and how it got to you.
Just like any other industry, it does cost money to operate recycling systems, but recycling businesses and jobs wouldn’t exist if recycling weren’t profitable. It’s true that some recycled materials, such as aluminum, conserve more resources than other recycled materials do and are more profitable when sold to manufacturers. However, all recycling and composting systems will become more profitable and conserve more resources when we increase the quality and quantity of materials recovered.
Did you know that in 2016, Coloradans buried $267 MILLION worth of recyclable materials in landfills!? Now there’s an opportunity to save a ton of money and resources, simply by recycling more! Colorado’s recycling rate is only at about 15%, which is less than HALF the national average, so there’s plenty of room to grow and save even more money, energy, and resources. [EcoCycle]
If the items you put in your recycling bin meet your local recycling guidelines, then they will be properly recycled. Recycling is a growing industry so key to our economy that it was declared an essential service in the US by the Department of Homeland Security during the spring 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, this market was valued at about $265 billion US dollars. By the year 2024, the market is expected to grow to about $377 billion US dollars.
Your local recycler makes money from selling those valuable materials to the markets that will turn them into something new. So it doesn’t make sense to be landfilling recyclables instead of selling them if selling is possible.
However, sometimes recyclables need to be thrown out if they’re heavily contaminated with other unrecyclable materials. Some of the most common recycling contaminants are 1) loose single-use plastic bags, 2) bags used to contain recyclables, and 3) leftover food and liquid in packaging. Please keep these items OUT of your recycling bin so that valuable recyclables do not get contaminated. Be sure to double-check your local guidelines to see what is and is not acceptable in your recycling bin. You can also check out our full Dirty Dozen list of the worst recycling contaminants at ecocycle.org/dirtydozen. [EcoCycle]
When China stopped importing recyclables from the United States and other countries in 2018, there were some recycling programs in the U.S. that had relied on sending their materials to China and were badly affected, but Eco-Cycle was never reliant on China to recycle our materials. For the most part, recycling programs, even those that previously relied on markets in China, have survived. China’s policy actually created an opportunity to build and strengthen LOCAL and U.S. markets! Which, in the long run, is good news.
Review EPR Legislation Nationwide and in Your Community...and Advocate For Policies You Support
This year's trends around Extended Producer Responsibility are hopeful, as they help bring into a focus a future in which producers, brands and their consumers are collectively being held accountable for the waste they create and/or purchase.
When brands are held accountable for how their product and packaging decisions impact waste, they will - overtime - make decisions that are better for recycling, for a circular economy and for the environment overall.
Learn more about Extended Producer Responsibility here and stay on top of nationwide legislative proposals here.
Make a Zero Waste Swap
Recycling naysayers are certainly correct in highlighting that the first step, before recycling, is always to reduce and reuse. The concept of reducing includes a few concepts:
(1) Do you need a "thing" to begin with or can you go without?
(2) Can you achieve the same purpose with far fewer materials than original "thing" you were planning to purchase?
(3) Can you get the item used instead of it being brand new?
By reusing we mean just that, continuing to use the item at least one more time if not many times. For example, reuse your sauce jars as glasses or vases. Reuse the box or mailer your order came shipped in for your next return or shipment.
Ideally, even when you reuse items and specifically search for reusable goods, these items should still be able to be recycled at the end of their useful life.
Get Familiar With Your Local Recycler's Requirements
One of the great challenges of recycling in the US is that every Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) has different equipment, different staffing levels, and different buyers of their material. This means that recyclers vary (sometimes greatly!) in what materials they can and can't accept and what steps they need individuals to take to break apart, crush or clean packaging before it is recycled.
This is an unfortunate reality of our country's current recycling infrastructure. While EPR legislation may advance this to a more consistent set of policies over time, for now, an important step we can take is to review the requirements of our own recycler and abide by them. Don't wishcycle and don't ignore a step (like flattening boxes or keeping cans whole and not crushed, keeping lids on or off bottles, etc).
Here is an example of the type of guidance EcoCycle puts out. Your recycler likely has a similar poster you can review, print out and post near your recycling bin!