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And it's entirely avoidable.

Bill Maher, Comedian and Political Commentator

Q&A:  The unnecesary collapse of recycling

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What do you mean by collapse and crisis?


Unfortunately, in recent months recycling processing plants have been shut down. For instance, the largest recycling hauler in the U.S. (who also owns many major landfills) has recently closed 25% of their recycling plants. In the state of California (a state known for its progressive recycling), more than 1000 recycling centers and processing plants have shut down.

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Why is this happening?



The collapse of recycling is primarily due to high contamination levels in the recycling stream - which means the public is throwing a lot of "garbage" in recycling bins. Contamination cripples the economics of recycling. The process to remove contamination reduces profitability, driving up the cost of recyclables, thereby preventing many manufacturers from reusing recycled materials.  As a result, they continue to deplete finite natural resources at alarming levels. 

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What is contamination?


Everyday, the public throws millions of tons of garbage (food waste, diapers, plastic bags, wrappers, styrofoam, coffee cups, plastic straws, garden hoses, etc.) into recycling bins. That 'garbage' contaminates the good recyclables, hence the term contamination.

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Why do people throw garbage in recycling bins - are they lazy?


No. More often than not, people want to do the right thing, and they will do the right thing if it's easy and understandable. Unfortunately, recycling is inconsistent everywhere we go, making it extremely confusing. Confusion at the bin leads to mistakes, apathy and skepticism about recycling. The fact that recycling is so poorly communicated to the public and that the importance of recycling is so underplayed often leads people to feel subliminally, or even overtly, that it must not be very important.


Contamination is a direct result of: 1) millions of inconsistent and confusing labels on recycling bins throughout society, 2) confusion about what is actually recyclable at a given bin, and 3) the lack of national messaging about the importance of recycling right. 

This photo illustrates the confusing look of recycling bins and labels throughout society
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Can't people just take a few minutes to try to figure it out at the bin? 


Imagine if every single road and highway you drove on in the U.S. had a completely different looking stop sign at every intersection, and every speed limit and yield sign on every mile of every road looked different.  And imagine if every school crossing sign and all the paint lines on the road in front of every school and crosswalk were completely different as well.

At best, driving on the roads would be confusing and inefficient. At worst, we would see a tremendous number of fatalities and constant chaos on the roads. Such dysfunction would even affect the cost to distribute goods and would undoubtedly have countless negative economic and societal effects.  


But the government and society have deemed road safety to be critical; therefore we have standardized signs on every street in the U.S. as well as a consistent painted line system for our roads, freeways, sidewalks and school crossings.  These standards make our responses practically automatic; they create a reflexive response when we encounter them.

Unfortunately, although recycling is highly critical for our existence on this planet to protect resources, conserve water, conserve energy, reduce CO2 levels, improve manufacturing, create jobs and protect oceans and waterways from waste, there have been no standardizations applied to make it easier for people to recycle properly, wherever they are. One thing we know for certain; if people - the "actual recyclers" - are confused, recycling does not work well.  It will not live up to its amazing environment and economic potential. 

The universal confusion about recycling projects a message of unimportance and prevents recycling and closed-loop manufacturing from thriving.

Take a look at the street interviews of people's opionion of recycling today:

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Does the public really care?

Yes, absolutely.  In fact, recycling is the most recognizable 'green’ action that society is passionate about.  So much so, that in 1996 when the New York Times (NYT) published an article called "Recycling is Garbage", it generated more hate-mail than any other article ever published before in the NYT.

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Why is recycling so confusing?


Using the same road signage analogy above, also imagine if it was up to each household or business to create those signs themselves nearest their home, building or school.   Imagine if individuals took it upon themselves to design and redesign each sign on every road throughout the U.S.


Since the onset of recycling in the U.S., an individual or team within every business, municipality, school, airport, library, sports stadium, library, place of worship, or university has had to figure out how to label their recycling bins themselves.  This has resulted in literally millions of different looking bins and labels everywhere we go. Just as in the traffic sign analogy, this causes the public to be confused, and that confusion causes all of us to make costly mistakes. In the end, millions of tons of non-recyclables are thrown in recycling bins - everywhere, everyday.  It’s no wonder so many people feel apathetic and skeptical of recycling.  


View this MSNBC video to learn more:

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Isn't recycling collapsing because of low oil prices?


Contamination that stems from public confusion at the bin is the primary cause for the collapse; however, many people in the recycling industry and in the media choose to attribute the cause of the collapse to the drop in oil prices and changes in demand in U.S. recycled materials from other countries such as China.   


But look at it this way. If the public was not confused, apathetic and skeptical about recycling, there would be millions of tons less garbage thrown in recycling bins each day.  It would save the billions of dollars currently spent to remove contamination from the recycling stream.  With less contamination in the recycling stream, there would be fewer plastic bags and other contaminants jamming the processing equipment. There would be significantly less wasted time and money spent while equipment is shut down for repairs, and far fewer injuries to employees at recycling plants. If we eliminate confusion at the bin, these exorbitant and costly inefficiencies would be remedied and the demand for the materials would be strong.  Recycling profit margins would be so far improved that they would then be able to weather occasional fluctuations in virgin commodity pricing.

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I've heard that the contamination issue is a result of the recycling industry switching to a Mixed (aka Single Stream or Single Sort) recycling system?


That's another half truth.  Yes, when the major recycling haulers in the U.S. started to switch to Mixed/Single Stream recycling, it did cause issues for the paper and cardboard commodities, because suddenly the paper and cardboard (which is porous) was being thrown in the same recycling bin as glass, cans, and plastic.   Often the paper and cardboard gets soiled with the sauces and liquids that inherently comes with the jars and bottles and cans that are thrown in the bin.   Despite that issue for paper and cardboard, mixed recycling when done properly, is not the cause for the collapse of recycling in the U.S.   Again, due to lack of consistency and lack of national communication, people are confused about what is recyclable and what can go in the mixed recycling bin.  As a result they make mistakes, become apathetic and even become skeptical about recycling.  Therefore there are millions of tons of dirty diapers, food waste, plastic bags, wrappers, unusable plastics, styrofoam, etc. being thrown in recycling bins everyday, crippling the economics of recycling and preventing manufacturers from being able to reuse the recycled materials.

So, how can we fix recycling?

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Why would the recycling industry leaders choose to shut down their recycling operations versus fix the public's confusion?

Unfortunately, in the U.S. there is a rather serious conflict of interest in the recycling industry.  Many of the largest and most dominant recycling haulers also own landfills.  Therefore, when recycling is dysfunctional and highly contaminated, much of the unsold contaminated recycling from smaller recycling haulers ends up having to be sent to landfills which are often owned by the major recycling haulers, thus generating landfill revenues for the larger recycling haulers who own the landfills.  With the collapse of recycling, haulers who also own major landfills benefit considerably from the increase in landfill revenues.

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How does the downfall of recycling affect manufacturers who want to use recycled materials in their manufacturing?


Many manufacturers and consumer packaged goods companies are between a rock and a hard place. They truly want and need high quality, competitively priced recycled commodities to advance their sustainable manufacturing goals and to begin "closing the loop".  In fact, many manufacturers are under billions of dollars worth of shareholder pressure to use more recycled material in their manufacturing and to produce packaging that is more recyclable. However, public confusion around recycling and the conflicts of interest within the hauling industry mean these manufacturers are unable to access quality recycled materials at prices that are competitive with virgin commodities.  Often, there simply isn't enough quality recycled material available and if there is, it is often more expensive than virgin commodities due to the high cost of trying to remove all of the contamination.​   So as a reaction, often the manufacturers start looking for other ways to improve their packaging's environmental footprint, including lightweighting their plastic packaging, which sometimes can make the options for recyclability even more confusing for the public and more challenging for the recycling processors.   And this unfortunate reaction contributes to the vicious and dysfunctional cycle of recycling even more. 

Do standardizations really make a difference?

Society in general has seen dramatic improvements in the areas of safety, economics, and health, stemming from standardizations that have been put into place in all industries including transportation, medicine, nutrition, manufacturing and even the standardization of time. We take many of those standardizations for granted because they have become such a big part of our everyday lives.  But their impact to industries, economics, safety and ease of living shouldn't go without notice.   And now it's time for the same logic to be applied to recycling.    

Check out this video on the beginning of standardized time.  The parellels are remarkable to the parellels to the need for standardized labels in the recycling industry:  

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How can I help?

There are a number of ways that you can make a difference.  


1.  First of all, please sign this petition asking Mayors to start using the standardized labels on recycling bins throughout their communities to help people start to recycle right.

2.  Encourage your workplace, school, place of worship and businesses that you frequent, to start using the standardized labels on their recycling bins to make it easier for people to begin to recycle right.

3.  Donate to help advance the "Let's recycle right!" PSA campaign and to provide free standardized labels to K-12 schools throughout the U.S.   Our goal is to donate 1,000,000 standardized labels to K-12 schools throughout the U.S. by 2017.  

4.  Share this story with others in your social media and follow us for more news and updates.  

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Here are a few articles that demonstrate the dysfunction of recycling in the U.S., the blame on the public and the myths attributing the collapse of recycling simply to low oil prices.

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The Economist

Recycling gets expensive for businesses and consumers

KTVA Alaska

My Turn: The story behind the death of recycling

Concord Monitor

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