Is Recycling in Trouble?

Recycling has taken a hit in the past few months with the ban on all recycling and the restrictions on contamination rates that China put on its imports. Yet, recycling is not dead nor is it dying. It is bouncing back and will be even stronger when it comes out on the other side. The reason the U.S. market took such a big hit is that the vast majority of U.S. recycling is based on the single-stream system. When this system was adopted in the late 90s early 2000s, it led to a large jump in recycling participation because it allowed for a much more convenient way to recycle. People could now just throw all of their recyclable products into one large bin as opposed to having to sort all the products into separate bins. This added convenience comes at a price. The contamination rate has also jumped after single steam was adopted. A study conducted by the EPA in Chittenden solid waste district in Vermont is a prime example. They adopted single stream in 2004 and immediately saw a huge jump in recycling participation. To be exact, they went form an average of 19,782 tons from 1995-2003 to 39,926 tons from 2004-2016, but their contamination rate when from 4% to 6.7%. A 2.7% increase might not seem like a huge deal, but when we are measuring in tens of thousands of tons that is a lot of extra waste that gets diverted from the recycling center to landfills.

So why is there so much contamination with single-stream? The first issue that single-stream faces is that the paper goods and cardboard that is in the bin with bottles, cans, and glass have the potential to get wet or get food gunk on it. This renders the products useless to recyclers. The wet paper is a lot harder to sort via sorting machines. The paper that has food waste on it is useless because the recycling facilities do not have a way or the time to clean it, so it ends up in the landfills. The second major problem that faces single-stream is that many things that cannot be recycled get thrown into the bin with the good stuff. The hosts of “stuff you should know,” an award-winning informative general knowledge podcast from How Stuff Works, call this practice “aspirational recycling.” This is when you say to yourself, “I’m not really sure if this can be recycled or not but here, recycling company, throw this away for me.” This costs the recycling company time and money to have to sort through our trash as well as our recyclable goods.

Single-stream recycling is not the only way to recycle. One system that is gaining popularity and increases participation is called “pay as you throw” or PAYT for short. This is a system that has been adopted by 7,000 communities in the U.S. and is seeing great results. What PAYT does is turn trash pick-up into a system where you pay based on your usage. The normal way trash pickup is paid for is a flat rate, so if you throw away 5 pounds or 500 pounds of trash a month you pay the same rate. However, PATY turns trash pick-up into a per volume price utility just like water or electricity. An article Neil Seldman, co-founder of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, wrote for in February 2016 revealed some impressive stats. Seldman states that “the city of Waterville, Maine, saw its trash volume go down by 54 percent after it adopted a PAYT program in 2014. Decatur, Ga., has cut trash by 42 percent with PAYT and doubled its recycling rate. When Worcester, Mass., began its PAYT program in 1993, the recycling rate increased from 2 percent to 38 percent in the first week. (It has continued to increase and now sits at 43 percent.)” These numbers offer hope to the weakened recycling programs all over the country. If we give people the ability to lower their trash bill, by taking the time to go through their trash and move a lot of it over to the recycling bin, it is clear they will do it. The increase in recycling is great for the community because the less trash and recyclable material that gets sent to landfills or incinerators, the fewer greenhouse gasses that will get released into their community making it cleaner. The greenhouse gas savings for the communities would not be anything to shake your head at. The EPA released that the amount of greenhouse gas saved by PAYT programs in 228 counties in New England and Seldman takes these numbers and applies them to Washington D.C. (a city that could benefit from a drastic increase in recycling because it has residential rates as low as 20%). Seldman (2016) says that if Washington D.C. adopted PAYT programs they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road and the energy savings would be enough to power 5,800 homes a year.

If the PAYT program was adopted all over the country the results could change the U.S. on a fundamental level. The EPA says that with PAYT we would reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills by half and increase the number of goods recycled by 32-59 percent. If we looked at the numbers, the U.S. generates 230 million tons of trash a year and recycles about a quarter of that when 70% could be recycled, according to So, we put about 172.5 million tons of trash into landfills each year and recycle only 57.5 million tons. If we were to adopt PAYT programs as a country, we could recycle about 95 million tons and only put 135 million tons into landfills.  That change would dramatically alter the greenhouse gas output of our country, add millions of dollars of recycled goods to the marketplace, and save a drastic amount of energy. Not to mention every household that originally paid a flat rate to get their trash picked up would potentially save hundreds of dollars a year by decreasing the amount they threw out.

PAYT programs are not the only alternative to single-stream recycling. Dual-stream or clean stream recycling programs are also potential options. Dual or clean stream recycling address the issue of contamination much more directly. With dual and clean stream recycling consumers have to sort the paper goods like newspaper, printer paper, and cardboard into one bin and food contains, plastic bottles and glass into another. These systems will definitely cut back on contamination, but they have the potential to reduce participation rates because it is another step that consumers have to go through before they can get their recycling to the curb. I feel that PAYT is a more aggressive way to bump up participation. Even though contamination might not go down as much, I feel the overall lack of participation is the bigger issue and if we can address that first there is no reason that a dual/clean stream element could not be added to PAYT in the future.

By now you might be wondering what can actually be recycled. Below is a pretty extensive list of what can and cannot be recycled.

  • Pizza boxes- these guys are a little tricky. If they are clean they can be recycled, even if there is a small amount of grease on the box (less than a fist-size stain) they usually will make it through. However, if there are globs of cheese stuck to the box or a pile of olives you picked off, it will need to go in the trash. If you feel bad about that and have the time, you can rip off the top of the box and recycle that while throwing the greasy bottom away. If you are feeling really guilty, you can cut out the grease stain and throw the whole thing in the recycling bin. You can even put that greasy cut out in your compost bin.
  • Food containers-
    • Styrofoam take-out containers that we all know and love should go in the trash. Even though they have a recyclable symbol on them, the recycling facilities lose money because there is not a market for recycled Styrofoam, so they just throw them away. Even worse, if there are enough of those Styrofoam containers in a load that gets delivered to the facility, they will just landfill that entire load because it is not worth them sorting through it all.
    • Sandwich wrappers- the paper wrappers that hold a subway or jimmy johns’ sandwich can be recycled if they are clean of crumbs and mayo. If it looks dirty, throw it in the trash.
    • Paper plates- same as sandwich wrappers. If they are clean they can be recycled, if not they go in the trash.
  • Plastic bottles- they can get recycled and so can the caps. Be sure to screw the caps back on tight because if they are loose in the bin, then they are not big enough to make it through the sorting machines on their own. If they are on the top of a bottle, the machines are designed to take them off and separate them.
  • Glass- all colors are recyclable. Even broken glass can be recycled, but the small pieces (under 2 inches) will get thrown in the landfill. Try not to break them as you recycle them, but if you do it is not a big deal. Glass dishware like wine glasses is not recyclable.
  • Canned food cans- these are recyclable and do not need to get washed out before they go in, a good dump into the trash of the left-over food and a rinse and they are good to go. There is no need to scrub them clean or really struggle to get that stubborn piece of corn out of the bottom. The recycling center heats up the can to the point that any organic components will be burned away. However, we cannot get to slack on these because a lot of left-over food or liquid can contaminate other recyclable goods.
  • Cardboard boxes- they can be recycled. A good thing to do with them is to break them down flat before putting them in the bin. This saves space for both you and the pickup truck, so you can both fit more.
  • Books- you cannot recycle the hardcovers of books, but if you take that off the bound pages are okay. Paper-backed books are good to go as is. However, a better thing to do with your old books is to take them to Goodwill or Savers and let someone else enjoy it.
  • Aluminum cans- they are the king of recycling because they are 100% infinitely recyclable
  • Mail- you can recycle your junk mail but be sure to take out the promotional cards that sometimes come with them because those are not. And if you have ever wondered about those plastic windows that some envelopes have, those can be recycled too.
  • Old photos- a good rule of thumb with paper goods is if you can easily tear them with your hands they can be recycled. The waxy coating on the old polaroid type photos cannot be recycled but the glossy coating on photos usually isn’t a big deal.
  • Greeting/birthday cards- they can be recycled even if they have a bit of glitter on them but be sure to remember to take your money out of them!
  • Plastic utensils- they cannot be recycled. They are too small to make it through the machine. Either reuse them as many times as you can or just say no when you get take-out food
  • Coffee cups- they cannot be recycled. The wax coating that allows them to hold hot liquids is not recyclable. The lips cannot be recycled either they are usually made out of Styrofoam. However, you can recycle the cardboard sleeve.
  • Juice boxes- the juice, non-dairy milk, and milk cartons can be recycled and yes keep those lids on. But the shiny plastic or aluminum packaging of Capri Sun juices cannot be recycled.
  • Pill bottles- only the large bottles will make it through the machines. A good rule of thumb for them is if they are shorter than your index finger they are too small.
  • Plastic bags- they cannot be recycled in the recycle bin, but most grocery stores have plastic bag specific collection bins that you can take them to.
  • Ziploc bags- cannot be recycled
  • Bubble wrap- cannot be recycled
  • Paper- can be recycled. However, the brightly colored paper does not recycle very well because of the ink and coating used. Usually, a piece of paper can be recycled six or seven times before it is too weak to be used, but shredding paper takes one of the paper’s lives away.

This list was generated from the “stuff you should know” podcast and’s recycling myths PDF (a waste management site). This information can change and might be different depending on where you live. For more specific information, look up your local recycling center’s guidelines.

1 thought on “Is Recycling in Trouble?

  1. Amazing writing! Environment isn’t my most favorite subject, but you keep me interested 🙂


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