American Recycling Gets Diverted to Landfills, But Michigan Takes Steps to Boost Efforts

July 15, 2019

There’s no doubt that Americans produce a lot of waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there were 262.4 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in 2015, representing 3.4 million tons more than just a year prior. In the four years since, those numbers have likely increased. And despite brand efforts to switch to more eco-friendly forms of packaging and individual desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle, the harsh reality of our environmental situation continues to emerge. In fact, a recent report has suggested that, even when we do recycle, and unfortunately less than 22% of household trash actually ends up being recycled, that garbage isn’t actually being reused. The recyclables from the 40% of remodeling activity that consists of minor upgrades might look like they end up at a recycling facility, but they may not make it. One recycled shipping container might reuse 3,500kg of steel, but what happens when that steel doesn’t find a use? While states like Michigan are making a concerted effort to ramp up recycling, Americans have to wonder: will it be enough?

Given the fact that the general public seems to be more aware of the harmful effects of non-sustainable practices, it makes sense that action is being taken. A recent report found that VOC levels above 500 parts per billion could lead to problems for people with chemical sensitivities, but since many of us are opting for greener building materials, cleaning products, and personal care items, one would assume that the environmental impact would be a positive one. If you’re already doing things to live a greener and healthier lifestyle, you probably already take steps to reuse certain items and recycle whatever waste you can. But if you’re just putting your recyclables out by the curb in their designated bin, you might not actually be helping the planet.

That’s partially because, according to a recent report, many U.S. cities aren’t actually recycling a lot of the plastics that are deposited into recycling bins. Although Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, many of these bottles are instead burned, sent to landfills, or stockpiled. China used to be the largest buyer of plastic waste from the U.S., but the country stopped accepting anything but the highest quality plastics back in 2017. Since then, recycling companies have struggled to find new buyers; only 56% of plastic waste that our nation once exported is currently being accepted by foreign markets due to this ban. And what municipalities are realizing is that a lot of the plastic we used to send elsewhere is deemed non-recyclable due to its complexity and undesirability. In short, no one really wants “mixed plastic” like clamshell packaging, water bottles, take out containers, drink cups, and other items because it’s cost-prohibitive to recycle it and turn it into other things.

As a result, many recycling facilities are sending certain plastic items to landfills. According to Los Angeles County Public Works, the county sent more than half a million tons of plastic to four different landfills during 2018, while diverting 20,000 tons of plastic to its waste to energy incinerator. Since these mixed plastics really have no buyers in sight, the recycling companies have very few options other than to dispose of these items in some way. It’s not necessarily a shortcoming of the United States, either. According to an explosive Guardian report, the same thing would happen back when the U.S. had China as a buyer; we just never knew about it.

As Coby Skye, the assistant deputy director of environmental programs at LA county public works, explained: “[China] would just pull out the items that were actually recyclable and burn or throw away the rest. China has subsidized the recycling industry for many years in a way that distorted our views.”

Distorted they are indeed, as the public seems to believe that the majority of the plastics we use on a daily basis can eventually be turned into new items. When we utilize plastic parts made via reaction injection molding or we take a single use plastic bag from the grocery store, most of us don’t consider that the environmental impact could be disastrous. After all, many of the bottles we use have that little triangle recycling stamp on them.

But the reality of the situation s very different, says John Hocevar of Greenpeace USA. “Most people have no idea that most plastic doesn’t get recycled. Even though they are buying something that they only use for a few seconds before putting it in the recycling bin, they think it’s OK because they believe it is being recycled.”

That doesn’t mean that localities are giving up on recycling altogether. Quite the contrary. While the Mid Michigan Waste Authority has issued new guidelines and reminded those who use their collection services to keep plastic bags, glass, and greasy pizza boxes out of their recycling bins to alleviate contamination, the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) is taking a more playful approach in an effort to improve recycling rates. A new campaign involving six little bandits, dubbed the Recycling Raccoons, was recently launched as an attempt to improve Michigan’s 15% solid waste recycling rates. Although Michigan offers a 10-cent bottle return rate, it’s clear that that’s not quite enough to make statewide improvements in this sector. As a result, the EGLE is using part of its million-dollar recycling budget to create an educational campaign that may help Michigan residents gain a better understanding of how recycling works and what they can do to get involved.

“This campaign is a first of its kind for Michigan that offers multiple benefits,” noted EGLE’s Materials Management Division director Jack Schinderle at a recent press conference. “Increasing recycling and improving the quality of materials we’re recycling saves energy, reduces water use, decreases greenhouse gases, conserves resources and translates into local jobs.”

Approved by Governor Rick Snyder last year, the “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign — which aims to educate residents about proper recycling practices — serves as just one part of a $15 million investment into new recycling efforts, representing a $13 million increase from the year prior. The state is hoping that this funding can increase Michigan’s recycling rates to 30% by 2025 and eventually hit a 45% recycling rate target each year after that.

Additionally, the battle for healthier drinking water continues across Michigan and the entire country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that drinking water utilities will have to invest $334.8 billion over the next 20 years to address their deteriorating infrastructure needs.

While Michigan’s dedication to the recycling cause is certainly to be admired, it may be up to more than the individual states to ensure that these materials are actually being recycled as they’re meant to be. Still, it’s certainly better than standing idly by and continuing to dump plastics into landfills and waterways all the while.

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