How Plastics Broke Recycling and Why Grassroots Efforts Can Fix It

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead (1901-1978), American cultural anthropologist

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With the average person in the U.S. producing about five pounds of trash a day, it’s no longer a question of whether we should recycle but how to effectively recycle. A major obstacle to this is single-use plastics, most of which we were told are recyclable when they are not.

Why Recycling in the U.S. is Failing

It may be hard to understand why recycling has failed if you’re someone who diligently washes and recycles most of your waste, but what we didn’t know was that plastics we put in our bins probably won’t get recycled because there’s no money in it. In recycling materials recovery there is a sufficient market to sell metal, glass, and paper, but not the majority of plastics. Mostly only the 1s and 2s can be sold.

The harsh reality is that putting plastics in your recycling bin doesn’t mean they get recycled. According to the U.S. EPA, since the 1950s over nine billion tons of plastics have been made but less than nine percent have been recycled. Currently, there aren’t a lot of reuses for plastic materials, especially since consumers haven’t been buying recycled products and packaging, so the market is minimal.

The problem with plastics became clear as single-stream collection and inconsistency as to what plastics were accepted made it more complicated to recycle them. Wish-cycling, or the act of putting everything plastic in the bin hoping it will be recycled, became a common practice. We started believing most plastics could be recycled, which was understandable since that is what we were told.

Plastics are made using fossil fuels that have become cheaper as we have moved toward alternative energy sources, so the industry wants to grow the production of new plastics to make up for these losses. It is not a priority to them that plastics be recycled since that would reduce our demand for virgin plastics and their profits. It was the plastics industry that funded the Keep America Beautiful campaign in the 1980s to convince us that it was in our hands to put our trash in the right place, but all this did was delay the reality about plastics.

Laws and regulations to control the growth of new plastics will help but will take time to enact, while our plastics pollution keeps growing. The best ammunition we have against this dangerous growth is through grassroots efforts that promote changing our habits and attitudes about single-use plastics.

The Solution to the Plastics Recycling Problem

Two things need to start happening now that will make plastics recycling a success are:

  1. Everyone buying recycled packaging and products, and;
  2. Recycling correctly so what goes in the bin will get recycled.

Both of these are in the hands of consumers through their actions and buying decisions, but they need help understanding how important this is. This is where grassroots can be effective.

Grassroots efforts have always been the best way to help educate and teach people. They are the reason why recycling rates are much higher in certain U.S. cities than national averages and they have zero-waste goals on the horizon.

“The only difference I see is that the cities moving toward 90 percent have a very active grassroots network that consistently pushes for increased recycling and, in recent years, for zero-waste.” – Dr. Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A March 2020 report from the Earth Institute at Columbia University lists education, incentives, penalties, and legislation as recycling strategies that are working. Though incentives can help, like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that require manufacturers to take full responsibility for the recycling of their packaging, these have been slow to move forward. Over a hundred countries now have some type of EPR laws, however, there are currently none in the US, the biggest producer of plastics waste. We can’t wait for legislation, education is the most powerful tool to correct our plastics habit now. The solution to making plastics recycling work is in our hands.

Why Grassroots Efforts Can Fix Recycling

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead (1901-1978), American cultural anthropologist

Grassroots movements have been around for decades and are the backbone of change in our society. They are essential to repairing U.S. recycling programs because they provide an effective way to reach consumers who are mostly baffled by, and cynical about recycling.

The growth of recycling in the United States has been gradual, but people understand its importance. In November of 2019, the U.S. EPA reported on America Recycles Day that Americans try to recycle thirty-two percent of waste, an increase of twenty-five percent since the 1960s. This increase is mostly attributed to grassroots efforts in the 1970s when people started becoming aware that plastics were a problem and demanded solutions.

Today these same types of grassroots efforts are what are bringing about bans on plastics in U.S. states that previously had laws preventing such bans, like Colorado which passed a state-wide ban on plastic shopping bags and polystyrene carry out containers that will go into effect in 2024. This was in response to local governments enacting plastics bans despite the state law that said it was illegal. These local bans and movements grew out of grassroots efforts.

Consumers are the beginning and the end, they control manufacturing through their purchases and they control whether things get recycled correctly through their individual efforts. Educating them is more than teaching them how to put waste in the correct bin, it’s helping them learn how to reduce buying what won’t be recycled, especially plastics, and teaching them how to buy recycled so we can work toward a closed-loop recycling stream and stop generating waste.

People need to be educated and encouraged to move from good intentions to action. Learning that most plastics are not recyclable, for example, can lead consumers to pay attention and stop buying them.

Resources for Building Grassroots Efforts to Better Recycling in Your Community

These resources can help grow grassroots efforts to improve recycling in your community through education and building effective programs. Sharing these tools with friends and family is how grassroots movements begin.

  • Recycling has tools to support recycling education and offers program coordinators to assist in starting community grassroots recycling programs. Their Community Resources page provides tools to help fight contamination, recycle with carts, and engage residents
  • Recycle Coach focuses on ending “wish-cycling” and helping people drastically reduce contamination through education and simplifying the recycling process.
  • Zero-Waste USA offers a Resources page on their site that provides eight steps for becoming a zero-waste community.
  • The American Federation of Teachers published Greening at the Grass Roots: School Recycling which includes resources to help schools build effective recycling programs.
  • Another resource for schools is this EPA guide: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Resources for Students and Educators. Helping students build good recycling habits will be a major contributor to change and healing our planet.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency put together this Municipal Government Toolkit. Use these resources to work with local governments to improve community recycling programs.
  • America Recycle Days provides tips and resources for building community programs. It is a national day when the EPA recognizes the impact of recycling, and its contribution to American prosperity and the protection of our environment.
  • Green America has the goal of “Growing the Green Economy for People and Planet.” This page provides green living resources for individuals and businesses and is fighting to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.
  • The NRDC is a non-profit that has been working to ensure the rights of all people to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities. Their article, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Most of All, Reduce” contains resources on how to integrate waste reduction into daily lives.
  • The Ocean Blue Project provides resources for grassroots recycling and ocean clean up efforts and published this article: A Deep Dive into Plastic Pollution
  • The Institute of Local Self-Reliance is home to the Waste to Wealth initiative helping cities to target zero waste, recover increasing amounts of materials for their local economy, reduce waste incineration to improve air quality, and add value to the local economies through processing and manufacturing improvements.

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