Adaptation of United States to Recycling

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Recycling in the United States and all around the world has proven to be a problem and has tested society’s ability to make changes and adapt to these overwhelming issues. Questions are being raised about the United States recycling systems. Are we behind compared to other countries, what problems are in our recycling systems, what are the solutions to these problems, and how much of the problem is associated with packaging? Certain materials help and hurt; for example, plastic being the headliner with the obvious plastic in the oceans issues, and materials like glass which are infinitely recyclable. Could switches to other materials like glass help with recycling problems?

How the United States compares to other countries around the world makes it seem like there is lots of room to improve in recycling. Americans only recycle 34 percent of discarded materials compared to Germany which recycles double that amount at 68 percent (General kinematics). What is causing this dramatic gap between the US and other developed countries, what is missing? First of all, a major issue is sorting, the US has unclear sorting systems for materials compared to countries like Germany. For example, in Germany any kind of bottle or glass jar belongs in the designated glass bins. Glass is sorted by color and in their bins, there are different slots for depositing green, amber and flint glass. In each different municipality, you may see other colored bins: green, blue, yellow, brown, and gray. While each municipality has its own color system, it is a lot more established and advertised so people know how to sort their recyclable waste. (General kinematics) The problem of sorting recycling comes down to being educated, easily accessible, and clearly labeled. Other countries along with Germany that tower over the US when it comes to recycling are Austria, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, United Kingdom, Italy, and France. All of these countries rank in the top ten according to General Kinematics. To have such a high success rate clearly these countries are doing something different than the US. The communities may require one or all of these qualities: organization whether it be through legislation, industry, or entrepreneurs; incentive: a personal motive or financial necessity, and cultural habit-building practices.

Another issue in the United States is contamination in the recycling stream. Even on the local level this is a huge issue that causes many problems. For example, in the SOCRRA facility in Troy, 5 miles north of Detroit workers exclaim, “I just had a dead rat come by” and “Oh yes, and we get dog poop.” All this from recycling bins. These recycling mistakes by consumers cause major issues in the chain of recycling. Every mistake costs taxpayers in extra labor costs, and major mistakes like recycling large auto parts can even break the recycling machinery costing even more. Clearly, consumer’s choices on a very small level of just throwing something into their large recycling bin cause serious issues down the supply chain, making work for recycling facilities much harder and much less efficient. To make changes in the way the United States recycles, citizens must be better about their recycling habits to avoid contamination of the recycling stream.

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There are many issues in recycling right here on the United States’ own territory and in local communities but there are also huge problems halfway across the world that seriously affect the recycling system. Most don’t realize that China is like the United States dumping grounds. In 2018, China started to reject massive amounts of recycling shipments due to contamination. Because of the lack of international buyers, this has caused recycling companies here to increase prices for communities. This causes communities to have to make the decision to either raise taxes to cover the increased recycling costs, or cut recycling services all together. Keefe Harrison, CEO of the Recycling Partnership, says, ‘We’re fighting an uphill battle to make it cost competitive from day one.’ (NPR) One problem, she says, is the U.S. outsourced so much of its recycling to Asia that the domestic industry weak, so now with China not as an option the United States is forced to make changes.

Plastic is clearly a material that gets all the headlines when it comes to its issues with recycling. According to NPR, the catchphrase ‘Circular economy’ may be a way out of the plastic mess. The idea is essentially this: Society needs plastic, but people need to recycle a lot more of it and use it again and again. That will eliminate a lot of waste and cut down on new plastic made every year. Another issue is that creating plastic from recycled materials costs about three times as much as virgin plastic from oil and gas from the ground. Companies have to make controversial decisions to save money or be environmentally conscious. But according to ICIS, a plastics market research company, the petrochemical industry will likely double its plastic manufacturing capacity from 2016 to 2024. And the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, says it expects industry to spend nearly $25 billion to build new plastic manufacturing capacity by 2025. Compare that with the $1.5 billion that the industry plans to spend on cleaning up plastic waste. So how is the recycling system going to keep up with the rapid plastic manufacturing? Why aren’t companies utilizing old plastic? According to The American Chemistry Council’s analysis, ‘In a virtuous cycle, as the manufacturing renaissance accelerates, demand for plastic products will be generated, reinforcing resin [raw plastic] demand.’ Plastic is clearly still on the rise so recycling systems need to keep up with the continuing demand.

On the other hand, materials like glass can be utilized due to its impressive recyclable qualities. Glass can be recycled indefinitely without losing any of its advantageous properties unlike other materials like paper and plastic which lose some properties as it gets reused. Glass recycling is incredibly important when it comes to saving raw materials. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, over a ton of natural resources are conserved for every ton of glass recycled, including 1,300 pounds of sand, 410 pounds of soda ash, 380 pounds of limestone, and 160 pounds of feldspar. This reduces the demand for energy. Energy costs drop about 2-3% for every 10% cullet used in the manufacturing process. This leads to cuts in CO2 emissions, a greenhouse gas. Clearly, along with recycling, greenhouse gas emissions are also a serious global issue.

Overall, if the US wants to keep up with other developed countries changes must be made in how the recycling systems work. According to Green America, “Americans can raise our recycling rates, but it will take a combination of government policy, corporate responsibility, community will, and individual effort.”

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