Improve the American Recycling System in 4 Steps 

Improving the American Recycling System in 4 Steps.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Improving the American Recycling System in 4 Steps. Image Pexels.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Improve the American Recycling System in 4 Steps 

Waste creates pollution and is one of the primary drivers of climate change. Such garbage is a problem because landfill conditions don’t allow organic waste like cardboard to break down properly, resulting in methane emissions. Furthermore, nonorganic waste like plastic leaks harmful chemicals into the soil while taking hundreds of years to decompose. What can society do for improving recycling programs?

Recycling can address much of the problem. However, the American recycling system is woefully inefficient, resulting in the vast amounts of waste described above ending up in landfills. Correcting the problem requires a multifaceted approach that addresses each shortfall with the current system. Here’s how America could improve its recycling system in four steps.

Start at the Source

The first method of improving the American recycling system is to create less waste in the first place — particularly the plastic kind. The world produces millions of tons of plastic each year and while the industry does a good job of making you think it’s all recyclable, much of it isn’t.

Stamped on the bottom of many plastic products is a tidy recycling triangle with a number from one to seven. When consumers see the symbol, they instantly think the item is recyclable and add it to their bin. However, most sorting facilities only accept numbers one and two, with a few taking number five. Recycling the other types requires specialized equipment that is so cost-prohibitive few places use it.

Furthermore, there are also tons of plastic waste with no stamp at all. Think of the clamshells manufacturers use to deter theft or the cling wrap surrounding many products. Where do these items end up? Usually in the trash can.

The first way to improve the American recycling system is to create less waste. Change requires a conscientious effort from consumers and manufacturers. Individuals can give preference to products that come wrapped in biodegradable packaging. Manufacturers can seek new, improved methods of packaging their wares, including using new biodegradable plastics like the following:

  • Hydro-biodegradable plastics: This bioplastic degrades more quickly than regular plastics, is composable in an industrial composter, and breaks down in soil and water.
  • Compostable plastics: Different nations have varying standards for how quickly a plastic must break down to label itself “compostable.” For example, in the U.S., no more than 10% must remain after 84 days of composting and 90% of the organic carbon must convert to carbon dioxide within 180 days.

It’s crucial to recognize even these newer plastics will not break down in landfills because of the lack of oxygen and water. One study on bioplastics found many remained after three years. However, they represent a step forward. Although not all biodegradable plastics break down in home compost bins, community composting programs could cart these materials off to a center with the necessary heat to process them.

Manufacturers can also look to other packaging alternatives, such as cardboard, glass or aluminum. In today’s high-tech age, cameras render many of the security measures they once used plastic for less necessary.

Reconsider Single Stream 

Have you noticed the influx of single-stream recycling available? Although this advance seems convenient for many people — simply tossing everything in one bin — it created a problem that stifled genuine recycling efforts. A second method of improving recycling is to return to dual-stream programs.

As municipal waste management facilities moved to single-stream, China — which handles much of the world’s recycling — set new standards for solid waste. They banned some types — including single-stream contaminated scraps — which resulted in many otherwise recyclable materials ending up in landfills.

Contamination inevitably occurs when you toss everything in one bin. Glass becomes broken into shards too tiny for machines to sort. Bits of rotten food coat everything.

However, the changing landscape opens doors of opportunity for dual-streamed, locally operated recycling centers. Municipalities can apply for grants to expand and improve such recycling programs, making them more accessible.

If paired with community education efforts about best practices for the American recycling system, switching from single to dual-stream could significantly increase the percentage of recyclable materials that see new life. For example, bins could provide instructions on what to place inside, including guidance on rinsing goods to prevent contamination. 

Create New Drop-Off Locations 

Widespread distribution of bins won’t do much without adequate facilities, however. Improving recycling means creating new sorting centers and expanding drop-off locations. 

Fortunately, municipalities have models to emulate. For example, six New Jersey locales recently switched from single to dual-steam, including curbside collection in separate bins. Other jurisdictions can follow their example when hammering out details like how to cover costs.

Making Recycling More Convenient Outside the Home  

One major roadblock to improving the American recycling system is the onus often falls on individual consumers to do the right thing. For example, reflect on your last road trip. How many convenience stores did you stop at that offered recycling bins next to the trash? What did you do with all those cans and bottles littering your car?

Super conscientious consumers might include a sorting bag in their vehicle, but this can fill up quickly if you’re far from where to dump it. As municipalities expand dual-stream recycling programs, it would benefit them to do so in conjunction with tax incentives that encourage retail establishments to install bins at their location. Imagine how convenient it would be if you could recycle items:

  • Outside grocery and convenience stores
  • On city sidewalks alongside other trash bins 
  • In your hotel room 
  • In school and university cafeterias 
  • In your office break room

Holding Big Producers Accountable 

Tax incentives aren’t only crucial for encouraging improvements in the American recycling system by making bins more available. They’re also vital for prompting some of the biggest polluters — various industrial operations — to do the right thing.

Remaining accountable can help a business retain and draw in environmentally conscious customers. For example, as of 2019, 85% of millennials and Gen Z participated in recycling. These groups will be more willing to invest in a company if it follows the same practices and holds similar values.

Some corporate incentives already exist, but expanding upon them could go far in improving recycling. For example, the IRS grants a depreciation credit for recycling. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees state programs that provide incentives to businesses. Twenty-five states currently offer some credit. Getting other states on board and expanding such breaks could significantly reduce industrial waste.

Another way to use the tax code to encourage businesses to do the right recycling thing is by putting a premium on practices that have a high environmental cost. For example, carbon taxes work by computing emissions or greenhouse gas-intensive goods like plastic.

Putting a higher tax burden on businesses that use nonrecyclable plastics circles back to the first method of improving the American recycling system — creating less waste in the first place. If manufacturers had to pay more for using unsustainable materials, they’d have a bigger incentive to change to more eco-friendly packaging practices.

Improving the American Recycling System in 4 Steps 

The American recycling system may be broken, but it’s not beyond repair. It’s possible to set the course straight by taking the four steps to improve recycling outlined above. Creating less waste, switching to dual-stream, expanding drop-off locations and using the tax code to incentivize sustainable practices can go far in improving recycling.

A greener world is within reach. It doesn’t require a radical lifestyle change but simple improvements to keep the planet cleaner. 

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