Have you heard? Recycling is out. Nobody wants your painstakingly sorted tuna cans and milk jugs anymore; might as well just throw the whole practice in the garbage! Except that’s maybe not quuuuuuuuite true.
The New York Times’ opinion section has an interesting Q&A between David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network and Mitch Hedlund of the nonprofit Recycle Across America. It is indeed hard times for recycling programs across the country, with many shutting down and China—formerly a major buyer—now shying away from American recycling exports. There’s just too much garbage mixed in.
But Hedlund says it’s very possible to fix the problems, rather than just throwing up our hands. Part of the issue is that recycling instructions are goddamn confusing:
The root of the crisis starts with the way recycling has been presented to the public. There are thousands of confusing recycling instructions on bins throughout the country, which makes people skeptical and apathetic about recycling, and projects the message that recycling is unimportant. And the inconsistent labels on bins lead to millions of tons of garbage being thrown into recycling bins. The contamination is extremely expensive to try to pull out of the recyclables during processing, which makes the recycled commodities less desirable to manufacturers — and, therefore, makes it less cost effective to recycle.
As someone who is currently procrastinating on calling the local garbage authorities to ask what she’s supposed to do with a recyclable coffee can filled with unrecyclable chicken grease, I agree! Hedlund recommends that every recycling bin in America have standardized labels, making it as easy as possible for people. Which works:
When Bank of America donated standardized labels for all the bins at Orlando’s public K-12 schools, recycling levels for the school district increased 90 percent and the district saved $369,000 in trash hauling fees in the first year alone.
Here’s another real wild detail from the interview:
Some of the biggest and most dominant recycling companies in the U.S. are owned by landfill companies. Therefore, when recycling doesn’t work well, the landfill side of their businesses becomes more profitable. You’ll notice in many news articles, the recycling professionals that are providing the excuses why recycling isn’t profitable or isn’t worth it right now are often working for or funded by the landfill industry, the virgin materials industry or the waste-to-energy incinerator industry.
Oh! Okay, then!