National recycling report: We must do better at reducing unnecessary waste

recycling conveyer belts

Recycling flows through Waste Management's CID Recycling & Disposal operation on Chicago's far southeast side in this 2015 image. (Chris Bentley/Creative Commons)

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Past Storyfest Entries, Recycling & Upcycling

We have all been told to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” at least once in our lives. Those three magic words have always made it seem easy to help keep the planet clean. However, rising recycling issues mean the U.S. has to change its strategies toward waste, according to a new State of Recycling Survey conducted by U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The report brings an honest interpretation of the current state of the recycling industry and just how many levels in which it is faltering. Especially since countries in Eastern Asia have started to refuse accepting recyclables from the United States, according to media reports. In a press release from the Public Interest Network, which operates more than 15 organizations including the U.S. PIRG, several states have been “failing to both reduce unnecessary waste and to adjust to a changing recycling landscape.”

According to Alex Truelove, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Zero Waste Program Director and report co-author, the main thing he wants people to take away from this report is that it is going to take multiple facets to fix the waste problem.

“We can’t rely on recycling alone to fix our waste problems. Our systems were not designed to process many of the items we dispose of — single-use plastics in particular,” Truelove said. “To truly achieve a zero waste society, or anything close to it, reducing our waste and transitioning toward more reusable materials have to be the priorities moving forward. Recycling plays a role, but it should be a last resort, after reduction and reuse.”

At the 2019 Planet Forward Summit, Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, addressed how recycling is not enough in solving the waste problem. It is also going to take clean-up efforts and rethinking single-use items in its entirety. 

“Recycling is the solution to the symptom of waste but not the cause of it,” Szaky said at the Summit. “It’s not plastic that’s the problem it is using all this stuff once.”

Truelove offers what he thinks needs to be done in order to solve the waste problem.

“A mix of good public policy and corporate action. From bottle bills to single-use plastic foam bans, we know better policies can reduce waste and drive corporations toward better practices,” Truelove said.

“We also know that meaningful corporate actions can influence the market and lay the groundwork for better policy. We need more of both,” he said. “Consumers cannot be expected to move the market alone, we need to enable them to make better choices.”

Policy change is another area that needs work to help correct the problem, according to Truelove.

“There are also opportunities to work with other countries to establish international laws and better practices, like ‘prior informed consent.’ In other words, agreeing to divulge what materials we’re sending to other countries,” Truelove said.

Even though there are still plenty of materials that are being exchanged on the global market, Truelove said, plastic continues to be an issue.

“Plastic is the outlier, and I don’t envision that market recovering because plastic — especially disposable plastic — remains low-value and hard-to-recycle. That’s why we need to reduce our use of single-use plastic, first and foremost,” Truelove said.

See the full State of Recycling National Survey (pdf).

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