America’s Recycling Programs are in Disarray, You Can Help

America’s Recycling Programs are in Disarray, You Can Help

Recycle More Effectively by Checking Out One Planet Life’s Comprehensive Guide

Today marks the 13th annual America Recycles Day. Established in 2009 by the 501c3 non-profit Keep America Beautiful, the day has been set aside to help Americans gain a better understanding of the recycling process and how to help cut down on the amount of trash overwhelming our environment.

In 2022, America Recycles Day focuses on the economic impacts of recycling, job creation, and reduced manufacturing costs due to the reuse of limited resources and savings arising from not having to source new raw materials.

Each year, Keep America Beautiful encourages individuals to take the#BeRecycled Pledge and complete the following goals in November:

  1. LEARN: “I will find out what materials are collected for recycling in my community.”
  2. ACT: “Within the next month, I will reduce the amount of waste I produce, I will recycle more, and I will buy products made with recycled content.”
  3. SHARE: “In the next month, I will encourage one family member or one friend to take the #BeRecycled pledge.”

It’s no secret that the state of recycling in America needs improving, which increases the importance of raising awareness of the topic. While the issue will take a multi-faceted approach to fix – including legislation, corporate responsibility, and more – individuals have a huge opportunity to make a difference through knowledge sharing and devotion to a more sustainable lifestyle. 

What’s Wrong With the System?

To positively impact the state of recycling in America, it’s essential to understand the process and issues plaguing recycling efforts nationwide. 

In the most recent figures available by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 94.2 million tons of the total 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. was recycled in 2018. 

The most-recycled products and materials included:
  1. Corrugated boxes – 32.1 million tons
  2. Mixed nondurable paper products – 8.8 million tons
  3. Newspapers/mechanical papers – 3.3 million tons
  4. Lead-acid batteries – 2.9 million tons
  5. Major appliances – 3.1 million tons
  6. Wood packaging – 3.1 million tons
  7. Glass containers – 3 million tons
  8. Tires – 2.6 million tons
  9. Mixed paper containers and packaging – 1.8 million tons
  10. Selected consumer electronics – 1 million tons

Collectively, these products accounted for 90% of total municipal solid waste recycling in 2018.

The EPA also collected data related to composting and food waste management.

Composted waste accounted for a total of 25 million tons, including approximately 22.3 million tons of yard trimmings (more than a five-fold increase since 1990) and 2.6 million tons of food waste (4.1% of generation of wasted food).

Other methods of food management were estimated for the first time in 2018, tracking 17.7 million tons of wasted food managed through animal feed, co-digestion/anaerobic digestion, bio-based materials/biochemical processing, donation, land application, and sewer/wastewater treatment.

The current recycling rate nationwide is 34%, according to Keep America Beautiful. While the recycling rate continues to increase, so do production and consumption. In fact, each American averages 4.9 pounds of waste each day that ends up in landfills.

But how is all this waste given a second life? Well, experts are still trying to come up with an effective solution.

Prior to 2018, most recyclables were shipped to China for reprocessing.

But when the nation implemented its “National Sword Policy,” the global recycling system took a hit. By imposing strict contamination limits on recyclable materials and prohibiting imports of low-quality recyclables altogether, recycled material quickly began piling up at materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and eventually in landfills.

In a 2022 University of Buffalo study analyzing the impacts of China’s policy, researchers determined the quantity of plastic landfilled in the U.S. alone increased by 23.2%.

Though there has been a rise in technology and other tactics to increase cleaner recycling streams, the U.S. continues to struggle to find cost-effective ways to recycle the massive amounts of waste Americans produce yearly.

Residential recycling service costs hit $6.85 per month per household due to repercussions from National Sword – up 11% over 2018 costs, according to The State of Recycling Today Report conducted by RTS.

However, efforts are being made to overhaul the system and create a better process for recycling across America. The EPA is following a five-step approach, outlined in The National Recycling Strategy, to try and reach a National Recycling Goal of increasing the recycling rate to 50% by 2030.

The objectives, which aim to create a more resilient and cost-effective national recycling system, include the following: 
  1. Improving markets for recycling commodities.
  2. Increasing collection and improving materials management infrastructure.
  3. Reducing contamination in the recycled materials stream.
  4. Enhancing policies to support recycling.
  5. Standardizing measurement and increasing data collection.

As Americans wait for change on a governmental level, what if, in the meantime, they put more thought into what they consume overall and how they can do so in a more sustainable way?

The EPA offers a comprehensive look at what can be recycled in most communities across the country. 

The top 10 items to toss in your blue bin include:

  1. Cardboard
  2. Paper
  3. Food Boxes 
  4. Mail
  5. Beverage Cans
  6. Food Cans
  7. Glass Bottles 
  8. Jars (Glass & Plastic)
  9. Jugs 
  10. Plastic Bottles & Caps
Recycling goes awry when contamination occurs. 

Entire batches of recyclables can end up in landfills if too many unrecyclable or dirty items are mixed in. Since the U.S. relies on single-stream recycling systems, where different types of items are tossed into the same bin, the trend of “wish-cycling” wreaks havoc. In this practice of recycling items that cannot be recycled at all, cannot be recycled at the local facility, or cannot be recycled in a contaminated state, Americans are causing more harm than good.

Knowing what can and can’t be recycled through your local service is essential to recycling responsibility. Are you unsure about what your local service can handle? Check out the company’s website or give them a call so that you are helping provide a solution, not contributing to the problem.

As people call for more accountability from corporations and governments, more studies are being conducted on the recyclability of consumer goods. In 2020, GreenPeace published the Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability, providing a factual look at the shortcomings of the system and suggesting solutions such as transparent labeling, honest advertising, and more to turn the tide. 

In a 2020 report from the Columbia Climate School, education is listed as the first strategy to implement change.

“Minimizing contamination of recyclables and the flow of recyclable items to landfills requires consumer awareness,” Renee Cho, staff writer for the Columbia Climate School, explained. “Community events, campaigns, and brochures are necessary to educate residents about the importance of reusing, recycling, and composting, as well as how to properly recycle in their particular community. They need to understand which items are actually recyclable and which are not.”

A Solution: Use Less, Help More

With so many factors at play, how can one remain hopeful about the future of a planet piling up with waste? Recycling is only one facet of a three-step approach that has been around for decades but is more important now than ever: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

The world continues to generate massive amounts of single-use plastic – one of the largest contributors to pollution on a global scale. Individuals can make a tremendous impact by not only recycling waste but by reducing the amount they consume in the first place.

By saying “no” to single-use plastics altogether and replacing them with sustainable, reusable options, you are cutting down on the amount of recyclables that could end up in a landfill from contamination outside of your control.

There are so many ways to give items a second life. Here are just a few ways that your individual contributions can make an impact: 

Reduce: Swap out single-use plastic water bottles for a refillable option. Prefer a clean taste? Invest in a water filter!

Reuse: Clearing out your closet? Don’t throw away the items you don’t wear anymore; instead, donate them to someone in need. Looking to switch up your wardrobe?  The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all CO2 emissions globally and is estimated to surge to more than 50% by 2030. Check out a local thrift store before buying new.

Recycle: Start composting! Even if you live in an urban area, there are plenty of ways to start composting your kitchen scraps. Using a composting service, you can divert 360 lbs of food waste from landfills per year, which creates 182 lbs of compost and equates to offsetting 1,065 miles driven by a car. Learn how to get started by checking out these resources on our website. 

Refill: Keep packaging in mind when you make purchases. Shopping in bulk cuts down on the amount of packaging we consume. Check out our interactive map to see where you can bulk shop locally. Take it a step further and find shops that enable you to skip the packaging and bring your own reusable containers!

Bonus: Do some research on what items your local facility can actually recycle, so you aren’t clogging up the system with contaminants. Share this information with your community to increase efficient recycling on a larger scale.

While the United States undoubtedly faces an uphill battle in streamlining its recycling system, individuals can implement Joyful Changes in their everyday lives to make a difference. By “Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling” in creative ways, we can collectively cut the amount of waste that is funneled into landfills each year, paving the way to a cleaner future.

Interested in Learning More

CAN I RECYCLE THIS? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics By Jennie Romer is a wonderful resource for those just diving into the world of recycling. While we know the mantra – reduce, reuse, recycle, do we know what is recycled, what goes into a landfill, and what goes into our oceans? Romer is a leading expert on single-use plastics and reduction and recycling in the U.S. and has the answers to your questions about recyclables. Read One Planet Life’s review.

Don’t Forget! 

Sign Keep America Beautiful’s #BeRecycled pledge to spread awareness of recycling to your friends and neighbors! 

The One Planet Life team encourages you to take this challenge a step further:  
  1. LEARN: More about simple ways you can cut down on carbon emissions in your everyday life through OPL posts, shared resources, and social connections.
  2. ACT: By tracking your Joyful Changes through the One Planet Life App, you can see, in real numbers, how small changes carry a heavy impact. 
  3. SHARE: Our app with your friends and family. Make a collective impact by joining challenges together. When 16 of us each reduce our CO2 emissions by one metric ton, that’s equivalent to one person going net zero! 
Written by Carley Kimball

Written by Carley Kimball

Freelance Journalist and OPL Content Contributor

“I’ve always tried to implement planet-friendly practices in my life but didn’t quite realize just how much of an impact individuals can make until I was introduced to One Planet Life. I’m so excited to be able to utilize my professional skills to contribute valuable information and positive personal experiences to help make the world a better place.”

A Food Waste Recycling Solution that Changed a Nation

A Food Waste Recycling Solution that Changed a Nation

The Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the World Economic Forum target us to reduce food system waste by 20 million tons by 2030.

Food systems have a high environmental cost — more than 820 million people go hungry every day and many producers struggle to stay afloat. In high-income countries, 35% of the food is thrown out by consumers. Let’s look at South Korea for inspiration on a food waste recycling solution.

South Korea has a big food waste problem, with 130 kg of food waste produced by an average adult every year.

This is large even compared to the 95 – 115 kg of food waste produced by an average European or North American. Why was waste in South Korea so high to begin with? There are multiple factors. In the late 90s, the standard of living in the country rose, leading to more frequent dining out and more single-occupant households. Additionally, in South Korea meals are traditionally served with banchan: side dishes such as kimchi, seasoned soybean sprouts, or radish salad, and more – sometimes up to 20. These side dishes are delicious, but eating them all is a challenge, which leads to a lot left over at the end of the meal.

Dumping food waste in landfills in South Korea was banned in 2005, and starting in 2013 a food waste recycling program was introduced.

Because so much food was going to waste, the South Korean government stepped in to save food from going to landfills, which in turn changed the behavior of South Korean citizens. South Koreans now purchase special biodegradable food waste bags at local supermarkets and convenience stores at a cost of around $6/month.


All food waste scraps are placed into the bags, which are then placed into specially designated collection buckets.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-equipped “smart bins” have been placed around the city of Seoul, into which residents can place their food scraps directly without having to use the special bags. The smart bins charge by weight, encouraging residents to drain their food scraps of liquids before discarding — thus saving the city money on collection fees. Either way, the message is clear — the more you waste, the more you pay.

High-tech Food Waste Recycle Bins
The rate of food waste recycled has increased from 2% to 95% today in South Korea.

The collected dry food scraps are then turned into fertilizer in urban gardens, or the remaining moisture squeezed out of the bags is turned into bio gasses and oils. And although the system isn’t perfect (South Korea has created more fertilizer than can realistically be used), these changes have caused the rate of food waste recycled to increase from 2% to 95% today and proves how much of a difference small changes can make. 

Does your city or town compost? Have you ever tried composting? Let us know about your experiences, or check out our An Easy Guide to Backyard Composting blog to learn more about starting a home composting system, or our OPL Insight, Composting in a City Near You to learn about composting services that do the dirty work for you.

It’s Impressive What Can Be Done When We Work Together

It’s Impressive What Can Be Done When We Work Together

September 16th is World Ozone Day. It’s actually the 35th anniversary of the Vienna Convention and 35 years of governments, scientists, and industry working together to protect the global ozone layer.  Through combined effort, 99 percent of all ozone-depleting substances were cut out.  As a result, the ozone layer is healing and expected to return to pre-1980 values by mid-century.  Today, let’s take a moment to thank all of those who in 1985 raised the alarm concerning the importance of protecting the ozone layer (a fragile shield of gas that protects the earth from the harmful portion of the sun’s rays) and for helping preserve life on the planet.

When it comes to climate change and the climate crisis, we are at a similar nexus.  2020 is the year we must begin to work together as individuals, industry, scientists and governments to reduce carbon dioxide emission to net zero by 2050.  Net zero simply means to put no more carbon into the atmosphere than can be taken out.  

YOU can make a difference.  Simple changes you make can have a direct and positive impact on reducing our carbon output.  Start by committing to the three-R’s: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

REDUCE:  Ponder this for a moment: Plastic production has surged in the last 50 years. Just consider plastic bottles. Over 480 billion plastic bottles are sold per year. That equates to 40 billion per month; 1.4 Billion every day, and 54.9 million every hour. Almost one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world!  In the past 10 years alone, 4 trillion plastic bottles have been sold. The United States produces 34.5 million tons of plastic waste per year and half of it was designed to be used only once! Is it any wonder that we see plastic bottles littering the roadsides and our favorite rivers, lakes, and oceans?

Reducing the amount of plastic we consume is a step in the right direction. Avoid products sold in single-use plastic. Here are three easy first steps:

  • Use your own beverage container. It’s time to STOP drinking bottled water from plastic bottles. There are so many beautiful and highly functional canteens and water bottles available. Bring your own water with you and refill it at the office or gym. It’s a great reflection on you and it tastes better and costs less. A triple benefit!  Check out Corkcicle canteens. They are dedicated to making sustainable stylish and to bringing clean water to those in need.
  • Use your own bags when shopping. Say no to plastic bags! It’s pretty easy, really. Put reusable bags in your trunk or purse. Include small mesh produce bags and larger tote and cooler bags.
  • Say no to single-use plastic straws. There are just some things we do by habit. We take the plastic straw we’re offered with our beverage. Our wildlife and oceans beg you now to take a moment to think about the plastic straw and what happens to it when you are done using it.  Where does it go?  Well, the answer is pretty simple. The straw ends up in the trash, then in the landfill, then into wildlife or marine life, and then potentially into your body.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to use a plastic straw enough to want to threaten birds, marine life, or to possibly ingest it myself. Say no thank you to the plastic straw.  Bring your own beautiful paper, metal, or glass straw with you.  Let us recommend Simply Straws

Follow the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

REUSE: It’s trending! From the growth of high-quality second-hand fashion retailers like ThredUp to hourly car rental companies like Zipcar, reusing is the new cool. A big part of taking care of our planet is respecting the use of its natural resources.  Curbing our appetite for cheap fast fashion (which has the added benefit of reducing the misuse of human resources) and being more mindful of our carbon footprint by sharing rides instead of using our own cars are just two examples of ways we can make a positive impact on the environment and still have fun. Here are are few other ideas:

  • Buy used books and sell your well-read books to resellers.
  • Donate or consign your gently used clothing and other items.
  • Repurpose plastic and box packaging to organize a closet or pantry.


RECYCLE: When it comes to recycling you need to do what you can to put recyclable plastic into a place where it can be recycled. It’s important to note that, even if you throw the water bottle into your recycling trash can versus your regular trash bin, it may not in fact be recycled. Only about 3 of 10 plastic water bottles are actually recycled.  Due to the high cost of recycling and cross-contamination, most plastic water bottles get incinerated or end up in landfills. Most water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which can be recycled and reused as new bottles.  Recycled PET plastic can also be used as building material for clothes, rugs, toys, and packaging materials.

Recycle Water Bottles
  • Check with your local recycling program to become familiar with the materials that can be recycled.
  • Be sure to clean and recycle your plastic milk cartons, laundry detergent bottles, shampoo containers, etc. These are the plastics with a 1 or 2 within the recycle triangle icon found on the bottom of the container.
  • Support recycling by purchasing products made from recycled-content products.

Lastly, as you joyfully practice implementing the three R’s, pay attention to the companies and brands that are producing and using the most plastics.  Shy away from them and start supporting companies and brands that are reducing their reliance on plastic and other elements that harm our planet. We’re even more powerful in numbers. When we open our wallets and show our loyalty, companies listen. 

What are you doing to protect our planet?  We’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

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