Reduce! Reuse. Recycle?: The flaws in U.S. recycling

Grace Cook ‘21, Sports and Entertainment Editor

Recycling our plastics can feel like an accomplishment. Placing materials into the recycling bin takes deliberation and thoughtfulness, and is a point of pride for the environmentally-conscious. In the United States, recycling is hailed as a savior. Little do we know that recycling in the U.S. is also a disaster.

Metal and glass recycling works amazingly well because these materials can be repurposed almost infinitely. No matter how many times we melt down metal and glass, the material never loses its quality. Paper recycling is also highly beneficial; 70 percent of all U.S. paper is recycled, and a single sheet can be reprocessed up to six times before it loses quality. 

Plastics, however? Plastics are a different story. 

The majority of all plastic types are non-recyclable. “Well, why do all plastic containers have triangle recycling symbols?”, you may ask. The triangle symbol on the bottom of a plastic container does not necessarily signify that the material is recyclable; rather, it indicates the container’s grade of plastic. The National Public Radio reported that in order to make their products more appealing, plastic companies lobbied to have the triangular “recycling” symbol put on all plastic containers. 

Grades one and two are the easiest to repurpose and can always be recycled. Grades three through six are more difficult to recycle, and therefore are less commonly accepted throughout Michigan. Grade seven plastics are nearly worthless for recycling, and therefore are rarely collected by facilities. Items such as plastic bags, bubble wrap, foam containers, paper coffee cups, and waxed cardboard cannot be recycled. One should check their county’s recycling guidelines to discover exactly which plastic grades can be collected in their area.

While any type of plastic theoretically could be recycled, the majority of plastics are extremely difficult to break down and make into new products. For one thing, plastic is expensive to collect and melt down. While recycled paper, metal, and glass are cheaper than their brand-new counterparts because they require fewer resources and less energy, recycled plastic is actually more expensive to produce than new plastic. Additionally, plastic breaks down each time it is melted and reformed, so it can only be recycled two times before losing quality.

Many of us are guilty of “wishful recycling”: we offhandedly toss a non-recyclable object into the green bin in hopes that maybe—just maybe—we will be helping the environment. It is defeating to dump single-use plastics into the garbage, and we yearn so badly for them to not end up in a landfill or the ocean. 

Unfortunately, our wishful recycling is actually hurting the environment. Mixing dirty or non-recyclable materials with regular recyclables contaminates the entire bin. To prevent money and time from being wasted, some companies will send entire contaminated batches straight to the landfill. If a “bad” plastic does successfully sneak its way into a recycling facility, it can break machines, cause delays in the recycling process, and waste energy. Basically, our wishful recycling sends plastics down the long and hard path to the landfill.

Our personal recycling actions are not the only factors that impact plastic’s life cycle, though. Moreover, plastic’s life-after-death depends on the country it resides in. For decades, the U.S. sold our recyclables to China. The U.S.’s contaminated recyclables quickly polluted the Chinese countryside, however, and in 2018 China banned the import of used plastics into its country.

Since 2018, the U.S. has found itself stuck in a recycling conundrum. Our great nation’s heavy reliance on China prevented us from building our own recycling facilities, so now the national recycling industry is struggling to gain any headway. Because we lack the resources to recycle our materials at home, the U.S. has resorted to selling our plastic waste to any country who has not already banned importation of recyclables. Columbia University said that the U.S. now ships, “over 1 million metric tons a year of plastic waste abroad,” to countries with cheap labor and lax environmental regulations like Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. Even more grievous, Columbia University said, “that 20 to 70 percent of plastic intended for recycling overseas is unusable and is ultimately discarded.”

Is our recycling pointless? No. Recycling of glass, metals, and paper works wonders. When we recycle plastics that have been cleaned and are of the proper grades, we heal the environment by preventing new plastic materials from being produced, too. Recycling still should not, however, be hailed as the savior of our planet. While we must continue to diligently recycle materials, it is our greater responsibility to prevent the production of plastics in the first place. The entire life cycle of plastic, from its petroleum origins to its deathbed in a landfill, is unethical and needs change. The true road to environmental recovery starts when the production of plastic stops. 

To learn more about recycling opportunities and restrictions in South Lyon, check out the following resources.

South Lyon Department of Public Works Recycling Information:

Green For Life Recycling: 

Recycle Livingston:

Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County:

Milano Metals and Recycling: Beavers Company:

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