Why Isn’t Recycling Working In The United States?

Why Isn’t Recycling Working In The United States?


With recycling such a popular process across the world, why do some countries not adopt the approach or fail at success? Why is recycling no longer as popular in countries such as the United States?

The United States is facing a recycling crisis of such as they cancel or scale back recycling programs due to lack of interest from other countries to import the recycling. You see, recycling contributes to a $200 billion or so industry, whereby other countries actually import recycled materials, however, countries such as China have stopped accepting foreign recycling.


What Is Recycling?

Plastic is all around us in our everyday lives, from the cutlery or coffee cup you receive at a takeaway to the bag you take your trash out in or carry groceries to the car in. Unfortunately, many types of plastic are not recyclable, compostable or biodegradable and it’s important to understand which types you are using and any available alternatives.

Recycling is essentially the process of repurposing a plastic item into something new or reusable. This often includes melting the plastic down into something new. When done correctly, this can reduce contributions to landfill, conserve resources and protect our environment from greenhouse gas emissions and other manufacturing by-products.

Essentially, plastic containers such as takeaway containers, bottles and fruit punnets can be recycled. Rigid items such as hard plastic trays also can usually be recycled. However, softer plastics that are ‘scrunchable’ such as soft polystyrene trays or plastic bags or wrappers can’t be placed in your usual recycling.

It’s best to always check with your local council what they will take in your kerbside recycling bins. Softer plastics are sometimes collected by local groups or grocery stores as a separate recycling project. Of course, paper and cardboard can also often be recycled.

Find out more about the different recyclable plastics in this blog.


What Can Be Recycled In The United States?

In the United States, most of the plastics and papers you’d expect can be recycled. These include:

  • Paper and cardboard
  • Metals such as tin, aluminum cans
  • Rigid plastics such as bottles or containers
  • Glass food containers or jars
  • Polystyrene foam cups or containers.

Of course, other items such as electronics or white goods can also sometimes be recycled but they usually go to a separate section at the local landfill centre. You also need to understand how you dispose of the above as items such as polystyrene usually need to be collected outside of your bins.

It was estimated in 2018 that Americans recycled around 68 per cent of the paper they used, so Americans are recycling, it’s just where to put that recycling that is currently the issue.


How Is Plastic Being Recycled?

According to the EPA, only 94.2 million of 267.8 millions tons of solid waste in 2017 was recycled or composted in America. When it comes to recycling, glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely, paper can be recycled around five-to-seven times and plastic only once or twice in a lifecycle.

The most common of recycling is single-stream where all recyclable materials are placed into the same bin, however, this means about a quarter of the material gets contaminated. Plastic is the biggest challenge in this respect as many companies won’t buy recycled plastic if contaminated.

Recycling is a two-stage process:

  1. Sorting is done to ensure contaminants are removed and the products are cleaned.
  2. Plastic is either shredded into flakes or melt processed into pellets, which are then molded into new products.

The shredding or grinding of plastic is critical to this phase. Sometimes further sorting is also needed.

Recycle Plastic Bag

What Are Some Problems With Recycling?

There are many issues with recycling, particularly when it comes to plastic. These include:

  • Low market demand for recycled materials
  • Lack of interest in contaminated materials
  • Worker safety when processing and shredding/melting
  • Expensive – cost of recycling can be high
  • Lack of education around what can be recycled and what to do with it
  • More pollution and higher energy consumption during the recycling process
  • Requiring more and more stricter and stringent implementation
  • Quality is not guaranteed
  • Recycling is not as effective as it once was.

Due to lack of knowledge, contamination can occur as mentioned, making recycling more difficult and can even prevent the recycling. Air pollution is also increased through the process. However, recycling plays a critical role in reducing waste and preserving natural resources.

Reusing materials where possible is a great way to have a positive impact.


Possible Solutions To Recycling

There are several solutions to recycling, such as the innovative ideas discussed in this blog. However, the key solution is to develop the domestic market in the United States by improving technology used for sorting and recovering materials, including more recycled materials in products and creating demand in the marketplace.

Some other solutions could include:

  • Education in schools and the community around the importances of recycling and how to take part
  • Providing recycling bins and ways to recycle in public areas or as part of general domestic waste collection
  • Encourage your family and workplace to recycle
  • Upcycle where possible
  • Recycle where you can
  • Introduce legislation that encourages recycling – such as banning non-recyclable plastics
  • Create resources on recycling for the general public and businesses.


What Are Other Countries Doing?

The US isn’t the only country struggling with their recycling. Countries such as Australia is now burying trash while Canada burns trash or sends to landfill. Malaysia, India, Vietnam and Indonesia are still buying recycled plastic in bulk but nowhere near the amount China was purchasing.

Unfortunately, many of these countries don’t have the infrastructure to handle the volume of recyclables China was processing. India and Malaysia are also considering banning foreign trash. Many countries are facing the same issues as the US in the western countries and need to also make some decisions on their recycling programs.

What Can We All Do?

Whilst we’ve listed some great options to contribute or encourage recycling in this blog, there is a wider issue at play in that the United States doesn’t currently have a federal recycling program. This means that the 20,000 or so communities in the country make their own decisions on recycling.

Lobbying the government for a recycling program is a great option to help solve this issue. Also working with communities, recyclers, haulers, manufacturers and consumers can assist in education and implementation.

Read more about eco-friendly alternatives here.


Other Ways To Reduce Waste In General

There are many ways you can consider reducing your environmental footprint (which includes recycling). Your choices each and every day can contribute to an environmentally friendly lifestyle and living environment.

This can include:

–          recycling your plastics where possible either at home or in waste centres

–          upcycling old products including furniture, clothes and toys

–          donating used goods to charity or others in need for a second life

–          avoiding disposable products and opting for reusable, biodegradable or compostable

–          bringing your own bags to the grocery store such as fabric totes

–          buying only things you will use and making mindful choices

–          composting at home

–          choosing compostable or biodegradable plastics.

Find out more about different ways you can reduce your waste here.

100% compostable


Unfortunately, the US and other countries are now struggling to decide what to do with their waste – particularly recycling. With China no longer receiving foreign trash, this has left recycling with nowhere to go.

Reduced recycling means more waste in landfill, waterways and the general environment, so what can be done? With eyes on the prize i.e. recycling, countries such as the US need to consider how to implement wider spread interest and education around recycling.

Communities, government and manufacturers alike must understand the importance of recycling as well as the ‘how to’ before they will commit to the process. Recycling contributes to a $200 billion or so industry, whereby other countries actually import recycled materials, however, countries such as China have stopped accepting foreign recycling.

Some countries have resorted to burning trash which is terrible for air pollution, while others are burying trash which just contributes to the waste issue.

You can also choose to be more ‘eco-friendly’ which means choosing products with little to no environmental impact. This can include products using green methods of manufacturing or able to be recycled, upcycled or used again. Green manufacturing typically uses less water or energy and produces less greenhouse emissions. 

Eco-friendly also means that the disposal method does not harm the environment – when disposed of correctly. Bioplastics such as biodegradable or compostable are also classed as somewhat eco-friendly. Biodegradable is not 100 per cent eco-friendly due to its inability to completely break down into natural components.

You can find many alternatives to plastic these days, as people embrace reusable items such as drink bottles, coffee cups and dinnerware. Reusable tote bags for shopping are also being used more and more as people become more aware of their environmental impact.

Upcycling furniture, clothes, accessories and toys is also becoming more popular as people recognise the value in revamping these items for a second or third use.



    We’re on the mission to research the best sustainable products and these are what we found, these are the questions that we are asking. Disclaimer, we are not scientist but we are heavy researchers and we are passionate about sustainability.