The Repercussions of Bad Recycling

Believe it or not, until recently the United States—and a handful of other countries—were shipping a large portion of their recycling off to China. As of January 1, though, China stopped accepting foreign trash, ushering in what some are calling “a new era of recycling.”

China claimed that so much of the recycling they received was improperly sorted and cleaned that it was no longer worth the time or money spent sifting through it. The announcement was a wakeup call for many. In response, the European Union is looking to clean up its act and reimagine its waste stream. All of its member countries are calling for packaging to be 100 percent reusable or recyclable by 2030, and some are setting sights even higher. The city of Brussels, for instance, plans to spend €100 million on plastics recycling and clean-up research and set restrictions on the production of single-use throwaway items like plastic bags.

In the United States, where we once shipped 4,000 shipping containers full of our trash overseas daily (around $5.6 billion of exported scrap every year), response has been less sweeping. While some recycling facilities are working to develop new technologies to sift through waste (recycling robots, anyone?), others have given up. In Oregon, a dozen recyclers have gotten the green light from the Department of Environmental Quality to trash recyclables, Fast Company reports.

Around the world, trash exporters are also looking into different markets to sell to, like India, Vietnam, and Thailand. But this doesn’t address the underlying problem at hand: tainted recyclables. Here are some of the best tips we’ve heard over the years to help you become a more effective recycler:

1. Wash out all of your recyclables.

Earlier this year, environmentalist Summer Rayne Oakes visited the mbg office to help us go greener in the workplace, and one piece of advice she shared was to rinse out all our dirty lunch containers before tossing them in recycling. “Recycling facilities need things to be fairly clean—rinse everything out before you toss it in. What happens is that if you put something soiled in and you recycle it with paper, it funks up their systems. You can imagine if you’re sorting through recyclables and a piece of chicken falls out of something, it slows things down.” Currently, in the United States our waste is contaminated about 16 to 17 percent of the time, so it’s worth becoming more vigilant about this.

2. Look into the recycling guidelines in your area.

In his beginner’s guide to recycling, Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of recycling company TerraCycle, recommends first reading up on your town or city’s recycling system so you don’t accidentally recycle something that will clog the system. “Look into whether your municipality uses a single or multistream recycling system. Basically, this dictates whether you can put all of your recyclables (i.e., paper, glass, plastics) in one bin, or if you need to separate them,” he writes. “Material recovery facilities (MRFs) like to keep sorting of nonrecyclable materials and garbage to a minimum in order to prevent contamination, and every MRF is a little different.” If you live in the NYC area, we already broke the rules down for you in this piece.

3. Remember that practice makes perfect.

In the eco-friendly community of Kamikatsu, Japan, residents recycle, reuse, and compost nearly all of their trash. Looking to them as an example, we see the value of sticking with a new recycling routine. “It can be a pain, and at first we were opposed to the idea,” a Katayama native said before adding that the system became normal once she got used to it. “Now I don’t think about it. It’s become natural to separate the trash correctly.” The community splits recyclables into a whopping 34 categories. If they can do that, you can nail your single- or double-waste stream.

4. Stop throwing so much away in the first place.

The quickest way to avoid recycling missteps is to throw away less in the first place. The old “reduce, reuse, recycle” phrase actually lists those actions in order of effectiveness, and reducing the amount of waste that you produce is key to living a more eco-friendly life. Ditch single-use plastic containers whenever possible (warning: the wellness world is full of them these days), pack your bag with a reusable water bottle, silverware set, and Mason jar, and look to give your beauty routine a sustainable upgrade.

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