Will the U.S. Ever Learn to Recycle?

recycling cans

By: Heeral Bhalala

I never understood the low recycling rates in the U.S. until I came face to face with the folks that don’t recycle. Being that 65% of Americans don’t recycle, it shouldn’t have surprised me that I already knew some of them and interacted with them daily. Yet, it did surprise me and spurned my curiosity for why they chose not to recycle.  The main reasons turned out to be that:

It’s simply too confusing. We don’t have a universal recycling code, especially to distinguish which plastics are recyclable. Also, every recycling program in nearly every state and municipality varies from one another in what they accept and collect. And sometimes even, products falsely make recyclability claims. The chasing arrows symbol on plastic was marketed as the recycling symbol, when in fact it is just a resin code. What has added confusion to using the resin code is that not all items in a specific resin code are accepted. For instance, of the #2 or HDPE plastics- which are milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and yogurt tubs- maybe the “skinny neck” containers such as the milk jugs and bottles are accepted, but not the tubs. How can anyone keep up?

It’s too much work.  For many, it’s easier to put everything in one bin rather than sort it out into separate bins. Even easier is to put it all into the trash bin, since some people just don’t want to keep an extra bin in their homes.

 It isn’t required and probably isn’t that necessary to do. When trash is “out of sight,” it’s “out of mind,” so many people don’t realize what a problem it causes. The US makes about one third of all the trash in the world, even though it accounts for only 5% of the global population. Of the 250 million tons of trash generated in 2011, less than 35% of it was recycled.[1] With no mandate to recycle, there’s little pressure when appealing to the hearts and minds of people to recyle. Especially since no mandate also keeps many places from having a recycling program from being set up in the first place.

It’s been about 20 years since the first curbside recycling programs were established, and our recycling rates have been listlessly climbing to 34.7%. Germany has made a remarkable climb to 70% recycling, but this was only possible by a collaborative effort between government, recyclers, manufacturing companies, other businesses, and NGOs.[2] By implementing laws that require businesses to hold certain recycling strategies, they designed a new standard system for marking recyclability of items that complied with the recycling facility’s preferences. With a growing population, better states of economies, and fewer resources to meet consumer demands in 2050, we need to find ways to replenish our supply chains by recycling. Also we need to preserve biodiversity, water usage, and protect the climate by avoiding using natural resources as much as we can.

To increase our own recycling rates in America, I think we would have to follow a similar trend as Germany. We would need to draw attention to the fact that we are running out of landfill space, that landfills create problems to human and environmental health, and create a standard system for recyclability claims. The nonprofit, BlueGreen, established the program, How2Recycle, which engaged more than 200 companies to set up a new system to eliminate consumer confusion with recycling.[3] It’s still in its pilot phase; so let’s see how it fares to change consumer perceptions of recycling. The use of collaborating with different pieces of the same system and using the government as leverage, will help drive change in a positive direction, with greater speed; so we can meet critical needs in time for our future.


[1] United States. EPA. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2011. Washington, DC: , 2013. Web. <http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/MSWcharacterization_508_053113_fs.pdf>.

[2] Look, Marie. “Trash Planet: Germany.” Earth911, 13 07 2009. Web. 15 Sep. 2013. <http://earth911.com/news/2009/07/13/trash-planet-germany/>.

[3] “How2Recycle” GreenBlue, n.d. Web. 15 Sep 2013. <http://www.how2recycle.info./>.

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