More and more U.S. communities have recycling programs and many households appear to be on board with separating trash from the mostly paper and plastic that can have a second or third life.
With our current habits, however, the U.S. remains pretty poor at recycling, choosing the wrong items for the special bins and not doing our part to clean the old containers. More tips on that, below.
And before anyone starts finger-pointing to other parts of the world, plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kilograms in the U.S. and 114 kg in European countries, to 69 kg, on average, for Japan and South Korea, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
For sure, the world is producing twice as much plastic waste as it was just 20 years ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfills, incinerated in open pits or making its way into the environment, from ocean habitats to our own respiratory and digestive systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers this explainer on the benefits of recycling. The EPA also advises how to recycle oil, tech waste and other challenging items.
Plastics for food safety, medical applications and other advanced uses can save lives, but it’s single-use and other convenience packaging that deserves more attention. That’s especially true as the world has just topped 8 billion people, according to United Nations forecasts — double the population of just 48 years ago.
Opinion: 8 billion people: Four ways climate change and population growth combine to threaten public health, with global consequences
In a survey conducted as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s 2021 International Coastal Cleanup report, the organization found that on average, six in 10 Americans made incorrect assumptions about the recyclability of common plastic food delivery containers.
Read: Recycling is confusing — how to be smarter about all that takeout plastic
The rest of the world could stand some better recycling practices, too. Only about 9% of the world’s plastic is successfully recycled, according to a report from the OECD.
For sure, confusion still remains around the specific items that can be recycled and the state in which they can be thrown in the designated bin. In fact, there are so many considerations, you can’t help but feel for consumers who may have the best intentions but still use the wrong bin. Dumping trash in the recycling bin is bad for the process as well, as communities mostly use human hands to separate trash from recyclables. Whole batches can become contaminated by a particularly dirty bit of trash in the recycling mix.
Here’s a snapshot of the plastic and paper that earn a spot in the recycling bin
As for paper recycling, the Paper and Packaging Board has some tips. Their position is Americans could be recylcing more types of containers as processes have advanced. That is, as long as consumers take a few extra steps.
Pizza boxes — remove all food and recycle (even with a little grease and cheese);
White and colored paper — think writing paper, file folders, stationery;
Mail and envelopes (yes, even those with windows) and greeting cards — if you still get coupons, toss those in too;
Most of those boxes that pile up when you buy cereal, shoes, cosmetics, medicine;
Takeout and frozen food containers, including ice cream cartons as long as they’re empty and clean;
Shipping boxes — empty them, break them down so they’re flat, and keep them dry;
Magazines and newsprint — no need to remove staples or worry about special inks or glossy papers because today’s recycling machinery can handle them;
Juice, Tetra Pak cartons and milk cartons — make sure to remove all liquids first, and put the caps back on if applicable;
Wrapping paper that is free of foil and glitter, including the cardboard tube.
More information on how and what you can recycle can be found at www.howlifeunfolds.com. The most important tip is to always check local recycling guidelines, which can vary. Type in your ZIP code at BeRecycled.org for a rundown on your local program.
And at the industry and community level?
The OECD, meanwhile, thinks there should be changes earlier in the packaging process, on the part of industry broadly, and in how communities set their recycling guidelines.
For starters, the group suggests better product design and developing environmentally friendly alternatives to packaging and transporting goods.
Landfill and incineration taxes that incentivize recycling only exist in a minority of countries. The report calls for greater use of instruments such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for packaging and durables, landfill taxes, deposit-refund and Pay-as-You-Throw systems.
Interestingly, the OECD thinks the plastic bag is an undeserving villain.
Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries, but are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution, the OECD report found. Most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste, and are actually more effective at reducing littering as they’re a portable trash-collection alternative.
Read: Here’s the tiny percentage of plastic that’s recycled despite single-use bans, taxes and incentives