Public Domain photo by Greg Henshall via Wikimedia Commons

The State of Recycling

A survey of recycling efforts in eight states

Through information gathered in North Carolina, Virginia, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, it’s clear that states vary widely in how successfully they have adjusted to East Asian governments banning, limiting or more heavily regulating U.S. recyclable exports, if at all. Broadly, states can be divided into three groups — those that have faced recent challenges, those that have always been challenged, and those that seem, for now, least affected by the crisis.

Overall, 2019 was another disappointing year for U.S. recycling efforts. Almost two years after East Asian countries began limiting U.S. recycling imports, there is still a severe lack of policies to deal with this massive disruption to our recycling system. Towns and counties are still cutting back on what types of material they will collect to recycle, or ending their curbside collection programs, as the cost of collecting and sorting recycling remains higher than the value of some of the recyclables collected.

The factors disrupting U.S. recycling efforts go beyond East Asian nations no longer being willing to buy as much U.S. recycling as they used to. Recycling is also undermined by a lack of corporate responsibility on the part of manufacturers for the products they create, a lack of access to recycling collection for many, limited U.S. domestic demand for recycled materials, and the rise of plastic, which raises multiple recycling challenges.

China’s National Sword and other East Asian import restrictions on recyclables did not break the U.S. recycling system, instead they exposed the flaws that have long been growing.

We can and should be doing more

The report outlines three different directions recycling results have gone over the past year. Oregon, Virginia and Pennsylvania were all vibrant recycling states that have shown a decline in their combined recycling and composting rates — in part due to less international waste exports. North Carolina, Illinois and Wisconsin were not as impacted by the East Asian policy changes, but have never been robust recyclers. Maryland and Minnesota continue to be strong recyclers despite shifts in the world market. 

One thing that is true of every state covered by this year's report is that they could do more — not only to promote recycling, but also composting and waste reduction.

REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE
Ban unnecessary single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and polystyrene foam food containers. Pass Right to Repair laws, to give consumers and independent repair shops the ability to fix their stuff when it breaks. Pass Extended Producer Responsibility laws that make manufacturers responsible for dealing with the waste their products will become.
Require unnecessary single-use plastic accessories, such as straws, utensils and condiment packets, to be given only upon customer request. Encourage the use of reusable bags and bottles through customer rebates. Expand curbside recycling and composting efforts.
Oppose the creation of new plastic production infrastructure. Require sit-down restaurants to use reusable plates and foodware. Mandate that new products contain a percentage of recycled material.
Pass “Pay As You Throw” programs that charge consumers less if they throw out less trash. Ban food waste from landfills, and encourage the creation of a comprehensive composting system.
States should take action now

Recycling, composting and source reduction efforts are necessary to protect public health, stop microplastic pollution and lessen the effects of climate change. States need to take on these challenges on by supporting recycling and source reduction, and not let another two years pass before they take action.