There is a lot to say about recycling. Here are the basics when it comes to typical commercial and residential recycling streams…
In 2015 in the United States, we recycled 25.8% of our Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). While recycling can technically include composting (composting is organics recycling) the two are often separated in studies so we can look at each stream distinctly.

The primary categories that make up that 25.8% are: Paper and Paperboard, Glass, Steel, Aluminum, Other Metals (mainly batteries), Plastics, Rubber and Leather, Textiles, and Wood. The recycling rates by weight for each category in 2015 were as follows: (Note – read the numbers this way – “In 2015, the United States recycled 66.6% of the Paper and Paperboard that was generated”, not “In 2015, Paper and Paperboard made up 66.6% of the total recycling stream”.)

Paper and Paperboard: 66.6%
Glass: 26.4%
Steel: 33.3%
Aluminum: 18.5%
Other Metals: 67.6%
Plastics: 9.1%
Rubber and Leather: 17.8%
Textiles: 15.3%
Wood: 16.3%

Plastic is only 9.1%? (“The Myth of the Chasing Arrows”)

That is the question that a lot of people ask when shown numbers like these. Part of the reason we assume much more plastic is recycled than the 9% indicated here is that most plastics carry the now famous “chasing arrows” symbol with a number in the middle or below the arrows. Believe it or not, that symbol is NOT an indicator of recyclability. All that symbol was designed to tell you is what kind of plastic is used in a given bottle, container, or piece of packaging. Most of us are only familiar with #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE), as they tend to be the most commonly used plastics in consumer products – think soda bottles and water bottles for #1 and milk jugs and laundry detergent for #2. As you can see by the 9.1% recycling rate for all plastics, that chasing arrows symbol in no way indicates whether or not a given product or piece of packaging is going to get recycled.

“Recyclable” vs. “Will Get Recycled”

Many things are technically “recyclable”, meaning that it is possible for them to be collected, sorted, and transported to a facility that can turn the material into a “new” thing instead of putting it in a landfill or incinerating it. The real question to ask is, whether or not a given product “will get recycled”, which is a different way of asking whether or not the market actually wants the material. While there is a lot to say about this, the best way to think about it is that the value of recyclable materials rise and fall just like other commodities do.  For each material category on the list above, there is a price point at which it is no longer economically viable for communities to accept them. Once those price points are hit, the community is actually paying to recycle the materials instead of receiving value for what was collected, and like any other business model, that is not sustainable. So, when markets for “recyclable” materials are not good (as they are now), many materials that could be recycled are not actually getting recycled, regardless of what bin the product is placed in.

No Such thing As “Certified Recyclable”

Every community has different sorting capabilities at their Municipal Recycling Facility (MRF), and every community has different methods of accessing markets for the materials they collect. This is partially why a product that “will get recycled” in Farmington, Maine may not get recycled down the road in Kingfield. It is also why the notion of something being “certified recyclable” is absurd. Generally speaking, the people buying recycled materials like clean, uniform, and easily sortable streams where the material value is high enough to justify all the work required to get it. If a material doesn’t check those boxes, chances are that it is not getting widely recycled.

This all Sounds Pretty Bleak

It does, indeed. But it is important to understand the realities of recycling if we truly want to build zero waste communities. As you can see by the numbers above, it is not like we can’t recycle anything – far from it, in fact. We just need to be realistic about what will and won’t get recycled, and find solutions for problematic materials rather than pretending that once we put something in a blue bin with chasing arrows, it is definitely going to get recycled.

BPI is a science-driven organization that supports a shift to the circular economy by promoting the production, use, and appropriate end of lives for materials and products that are designed to fully biodegrade in specific biologically active environments.

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