The recycling industry has a counterintuitive catchphrase, according to David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
“There are a lot of people who are what we refer to as wishful or aspirational recyclers,” Biderman told TMRW. “They say, ‘Well, this must be recyclable. This is a GLAD plastic container.’’”
In reality, this mentality makes it less likely that successful recycling takes place — all the more unfortunate when you realize how little recycling is even attempted at all. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 30% of plastic water bottles are recycled.
To help us become more intentional in our eco-friendly habits, TMRW spoke with experts Biderman and David Keelig, president of the National Recycling Coalition, about the biggest recycling myths and misconceptions.
Myth: You should throw anything that you think might be recyclable into the recycling bin.
Is it OK to recycle that plastic container with a half-eaten salad in it? Or that old garden hose, or those batteries? You might think that it’s better than sending them straight to the landfill. But items that are nonrecyclable — or even just dirty — don’t magically transform when they get to the recycling facility.
In fact, the biggest problem for those facilities is contamination, or nonrecyclable materials entering the system, said Biderman. The leftover salad, for example, not only contaminates its own plastic container, but also the other recyclables in the bin.
“There is about a 20% contamination rate in the United States,” he explained. “So 20% of the processing capacity that is being used at a typical recycling facility is being used to process stuff that has to go to a landfill.”
A good rule of thumb is checking that everything you recycle is “clean, loose and dry,” Biderman said.
“You know what, this water bottle is recyclable, but I can’t throw it in a recycling bin,” he said. “If it’s filled with water, I need to empty it out.”
This calculus will save recycling facilities time, energy and $50 to $100 per ton — ensuring that their resources go toward real recycling efforts.
Myth: All plastic is recyclable.
When China passed the "National Sword" policy in 2018, banning the import of recycled consumer plastics along with other types of waste, it sent shockwaves through the recycling industry. The United States used to export most of its recycled plastic to China; suddenly, the industry was scrambling to handle hundreds of thousands of tons domestically. In the first couple of months, lots of recycled plastic went to the landfills.
Luckily, the market has since adapted, and new domestic facilities have popped up that are willing to accept and process plastic.
That is — certain kinds of plastic.
Plastics are classified into numerical categories, or resin-identification codes, based on the materials of which they’re made. You can usually figure out which category an item falls into by looking for the classic ‘chasing arrows’ recycling symbol somewhere on its surface. The symbol will have a number in the middle.
According to Keelig, the 1s and 2s are always recyclable. These include everyday items, like soda, Gatorade and water bottles, as well as jugs of laundry detergent, dish soap and milk.
“That’s about 80% to 90% of the marketplace for plastics,” said Keelig. “So if we just recycled those items, you could do a lot of great things and accomplish a lot in terms of recycling.”
However, "National Sword" posed a bigger problem for plastics in the 3 to 7 categories, which experience a much lower domestic demand.
Keeling and Biderman name yogurt containers, plastic grocery bags, plastic wrap, PVC pipe and toys as items that are commonly thought of as recyclable in curbside programs — and that were recyclable, up until 2018. Now they just clog up the system, and if you try to recycle them, they'll likely end up in the landfill anyway. Instead, you should find ways to reuse them at home, or find alternative recycling platforms.
For example, many retail stores collect and recycle grocery bags and other plastic films. There’s also TerraCycle, which specifically processes hard-to-recycle materials.
The exact rules on which plastic numbers you can recycle also vary based on where you are in the United States. “It’s very community specific,” said Biderman. “You have to look it up on the Internet, or get communication from your garbage company or the local government.”
Myth: Recycling begins and ends at the recycling bin.
According to Biderman and Keelig, knowing how to recycle correctly is only the first step in becoming more waste conscious. We should also adjust our consumption patterns — like what we’re consuming and how much — before recycling even enters the picture.
“Number one, people should consume less,” said Biderman. “The reason we have problems in the waste and recycling system is because we generate so much waste. People need to be more mindful of what they’re generating and generate less.”
Keeling also emphasized the importance of purchasing recycled goods, thereby boosting the recycling industry as a whole. Many paper, aluminum and plastic products are made out of recycled content.
“Just know, you’re not recycling until you buy recycled,” said Keelig. “We all vote with our pocketbook. So think about what you’re buying in terms of recyclability.”