How Much Does the U.S. Really Recycle?

Photo by Mali Maeder on Pexels

By Melina Cantagallo, age 13 and IndyKids Staff

At 292.4 million metric tons, the United States produces the most waste per capita, with each person contributing 102 metric tons of garbage in their lifetime. But how much of this waste is successfully recycled?

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new reusable materials. China managed the recycling of nearly half the world’s discarded waste for decades.

However, in 2018 China’s National Sword policy banned the import of most plastics and other materials that were not up to new purity standards. The United States now exports over 1 million metric tons of plastic waste abroad every year to Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal.

Currently, there are virtually no federal regulations for recycling in the United States. Instead, recycling in this country relies on a single stream system, meaning that all recyclable items are placed in the same bin by consumers. This system is easy for consumers, but often leads to mixed contaminated materials that are expensive to sort through at recycling facilities. Manufacturers are often eager to have the eco-credibility that comes with putting chasing arrows on all of their products. However, oftentimes these products are made of mixed materials and cannot be fully recycled. For this reason, it is hard for consumers to determine what can and can’t be recycled.

“Most people have the attitude that if they just put it in the blue bin, it will get taken away and somebody will figure out what to do with it, but putting something in the blue bin and actually recycling it are two very different things,” said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, to EcoWatch.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 75% of waste products in the United States are recyclable, but only 30% of them are actually recycled. The agency also estimates that less than 10% of plastic put in blue recycling bins in the last 40 years has actually been recycled, according to NPR.

Some state lawmakers are now trying to take initiative to solve this issue. In January, Senator Todd Kaminsky and Assemblyman Steve Englebright created a bill intended to flow money back into New York’s recycling programs. This bill would help fund recycling programs in New York to provide and upgrade the sanitation machines necessary to properly recycle waste. 

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