Depending on where you live and your personal habits, you may or may not recycle. Some people have recycling picked up from their house, similar to trash. Others can only access municipal recycling collection bins or recycling bins at businesses. 

But why is it important to recycle? Why isn’t recycling more prevalent? 

Recycling for a reason

In 2017 in the United States alone, an average of 4.51 pounds of municipal trash was produced by each resident daily. Daily! That amounts to nearly 1650 pounds per person per year, with the total weight of waste produced in the United States in 2017 being 267.8 million tons.

I think everyone should do their part and always recycle when possible. This isn’t happening in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that out of a possible 75%, only 34% of the waste that can be recycled or composted is.

One issue with recycling is that some people don’t do it properly. In fact, of 2,000 people surveyed in 2019, 18% admitted to not knowing what can and can’t be recycled. Keep in mind that is just the percentage that self-reported that lack of knowledge. And 53% of those surveyed thought that greasy pizza boxes could be recycled (they cannot). 

A commonly cited reason for not recycling more often is that people simply weren’t taught how to correctly recycle. And when people don’t know how to recycle but do it anyways, sorters at recycling plants are left overwhelmed. 

In those cities with high recycling rates like Los Angeles and Seattle, residents only increased their recycling efforts in response to grassroots activism. Indeed, local attempts at promoting recycling have been very effective in educating people and changing their habits.

Recycling literacy is an important part of a successful recycling campaign. San Francisco, for example, has the highest composting and recycling rates in the country. But to get to that milestone, the city had to implement a widespread community education program. The city has an online database that helps people to properly sort recyclables.

Recycling contamination

An important part of recycling literacy is knowing that contaminated items cannot be recycled. This means anything that can’t have a contaminant washed off it can’t be recycled. Think ice cream cups and used plastic utensils. Contamination also refers to putting an item in the wrong recycling bin.

Contamination is significant in that it can make other recyclables also contaminated. Recently, American cities have been having a hard time selling contaminated recyclables

While it used to be easy to export recyclables to China, the country made significant changes to contamination requirements in 2018. It has been difficult for many recycling centers to meet the strict criteria, and as a result they have not been able to send their recycling overseas. As of 2019, the United States exported more than 1 million tons of plastic waste.

Why does contamination occur? 

We already learned that not thoroughly cleaning items before recycling them is a form of contamination, as is putting a non-recyclable item in the wrong bin. You may be familiar with what materials one town recycles, which may not be the same as the town next to it, leading you to erroneously recycle something that actually can’t be recycled. 

Hazardous materials including batteries cannot be recycled at your typical recycling center. Oils, tires, plastic bags, and eyeglasses are just a few of the many items that have special disposal requirements. Often you may have to take those items to a hazardous waste facility, or to pertinent retailers that partner with various organizations to recycle them. 

Community improvements in recycling

Even if your municipality does not have as robust a recycling program as San Francisco’s, you can still help your community increase the amount of waste they recycle correctly. 

Read up on your town or city’s current recycling policy and determine how it can be bettered. The EPA provides basic information on recycling, but it is important to know exactly what you can recycle in your area.

Write to elected officials about your desire to promote recycling.. Become involved in local sustainability organizations. Raising awareness and gathering supporters is integral for recycling program success. 

And teaching one person about something can lead to many more people finding out about it. Word of mouth is a powerful force and people often get information from within their networks. So, talk to your friends and family about recycling and other things they can do to live more sustainably now that you have some ideas!

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