America Recycles Day: Taking a deeper look at the pollution solution

Recycling is good. Reducing is even better.

Beyond plastic

Holly Thompson
Holly Thompson

Former Beyond Plastic, Associate, PIRG

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

In the 1970s, with the rise of the Earth Day movement, Congress passed the Resource Recovery Act. This bill gave the EPA the power to regulate hazardous waste in every part of the lifecycle. As waste reduction efforts increased around the country, the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – a leading environmental slogan – for the last 50 years, was born.

But 50 years later we still have a waste problem. In fact, from the time you woke up this morning until the time you go to bed tonight, our country will throw away enough plastic to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium — the country’s largest football stadium — to the brim. Tackling this problem requires us to focus serious energy on the first two “Rs”: reduce and reuse. Even if we get recycling right, we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. We are producing too much stuff, especially too much single-use stuff. We can and must use less. 

Still, recycling will be an important part of the solution, as well. Unfortunately, part of the problem is recycling is not as straightforward as it should be. People are still often left asking questions, such as: “What can I recycle? Is what I throw in the recycling bin recycled? Does it do more harm than good for the environment? Does recycling actually work?” Even though recycling is taught in schools, 62% of Americans worry that they don’t have enough information to properly recycle.

And for good reason. Despite many of our best efforts, only about 5% of plastic waste in the United States gets recycled. 

There are a lot of reasons for this trend of low recycling rates. One is that different cities and municipalities have the capacity to recycle different types of packaging and containers. Not every town can recycle every type of material. The plastic industry also has played a role in spreading information that is confusing to consumers, such as the three-arrow symbol, which can make recycling more difficult to do right. 

The green triangle made up of arrows is widely recognized as the recycling symbol. This symbol, however, has been copied and co-opted in ways that are often confusing. The plastic industry, in response to the problem of plastic, created a labeling system that consists of chasing arrows with numbers from one through seven in the middle of the triangle to label different types of plastic. Since this triangle is on containers people think they can be recycled in their home curbside bins, but this is not true. The symbol is used to identify the types of plastic that could hypothetically be recycled but many cannot be recycled in practice. 

This is not just because of contamination rates or people not recycling them, it’s because most recycling facilities only take a small amount of these plastics, if they take them at all.  When people recycle goods they think could be recycled, but can not, this is called “wish-cycling” which can clog the recycling facilities. The clogging of recycling facilities is why “when in doubt, throw it out” has become a slogan for recycling. 

In 2012, the company How2Recycle was founded. Companies pay a membership fee to join How2Recycle which allows them to put the How2Recycle triangles in a white box on the container. The catch is that the product only has to be recyclable in 60% of municipalities in the United States to qualify for the symbol. So much of the time, even if a container carries the How2Recycle “recyclable” symbol, it can’t be recycled. 

In 2020, How2Recycle downgraded some of the plastics they had previously considered recyclable and added a “check with your local municipality if they take this plastic” instead. 

U.S. recycling problems have been spotlighted by recent Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics reports. Only 60% of Americans have access to recycle #1 and #2 plastics – and for the other numbers, it’s 30% or 0%. Some recycling centers say they take the #5 plastic but just throw it away. So those 1-7 numbers we often see with the recycling triangles on our plastic packaging seem to be telling us that the product is recyclable, and that’s how most people understand it, but in reality, it is very often not true.

The other part of the problem with plastic recycling is that it’s not on an infinite loop. Plastic can only be recycled two or three times before the quality of the material is so degraded that it can not be recycled again – meaning recycling alone cannot significantly reduce our plastic production. 

So is it bad to recycle? No, it’s not bad to recycle. Certain materials, such as paper and aluminum, can be effectively recycled into new products at facilities. The recycling rate of paper and cardboard has come up from 43% in 2000 to 68% in 2018. Glass recycling was at 25% and aluminum recycling was at 35% in 2018. These rates still could be higher, but it is also notable that aluminum and glass can be recycled in a closed loop, which means they can be recycled indefinitely unlike plastic. You should also continue to recycle plastic bottles and cartons because the rates of recycling those items are 10% and 20% whereas the rates of recycling all other types of plastic are less than 5%. The ability to recycle products does reduce new resource extraction.

The aluminum industry is a good example of what can be done to promote sustainable recycling practices. The Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute have put sustainability at the forefront of their messaging and advocated for bottle bills and other reuse programs in order to manage the waste streams that come from the industry.

The plastic industry needs to take responsibility for the plastic they create. We should focus our recycling efforts on the products that are recycled at higher rates by investing in paper and cardboard, glass, and aluminum recycling, double down on the transition to sustainable packaging, and increasing the number of reusable container systems. At the same time, we should be reducing our use of plastic. Almost all plastic that has been produced still exists on Earth because recycling is not working as a primary solution. 

We need to pass policies that would stop so much plastic from being produced in the first place. For the plastic that is produced, we need the producers to take responsibility and ensure that they are contributing to the reuse of their products. This can help us shift to a circular economy where all products produced can be continuously reused without the need for new materials.

This is the way it’s supposed to be. The order of the words “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is essential. Recycling is the last step if something can not be reduced or reused. So what can you do? Encourage your local restaurants to accept reusable containers, check with your local municipality to see what materials they accept and make sure you’re not throwing thin plastic packaging or bags in the recycling bin, and spread awareness that people should reduce and reuse first. 


Holly Thompson

Former Beyond Plastic, Associate, PIRG

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG