Learning to Recycle (Again)

It happens every time I take out my recycling. I spend a week haphazardly sorting the cans from the cups, plastic bags from the jars. I make a couple of judgment calls. I skip the garbage bag and head down to the shared container — a container full of plastic bags and styrofoam. I wonder: how much of this will actually be recycled?

When curbside recycling programs became commonplace in the early 1990s, most cities and towns used a multi-stream approach. Residents would dutifully separate aluminum cans from glass bottles and plastic jugs from newspapers. The process was labor-intensive, but it worked. Plastic wrap rarely ended up in bins labeled for bottles.

Since the introduction of single-stream recycling, collection has become simpler. We collect all of our items in one bin, and they’re sorted at the recycling center. At the same time, we’ve become worse at identifying what can be recycled. We’re aspirational — we want things to be recyclable, so we add them to the bin. But in many cases, we do more harm than good.

If we want our trash to see new life, we have to be vigilant about what we set aside for recycling.

Lexington’s recycling stream is contaminated. Between 22% and 27% of the material we set aside is not recyclable. This means that around a quarter of our would-be recycling ends up in landfills.

Items that can’t be recycled — plastic grocery bags, soda cartons, disposable coffee cups — must be sorted and diverted at Lexington’s recycling center. Food waste, grease, and liquids can contaminate otherwise recyclable products. Opaque trash bags are diverted immediately, regardless of contents.

When an errant plastic bag or piece of medical waste does enter the machinery, it can force the entire facility to shut down. The center was closed for an entire week earlier this summer. In addition to creating hazards for employees, the unwanted waste creates a bottleneck in the system. And curbside recycling bins are sent directly to landfills when there is no capacity at the recycling center.

Lexington isn’t alone. Across the country, recycling streams are around 25% contaminated. Recycling systems all over the world struggle with the same problem.

Kamikatsu, Japan is a town of 1,600 residents. In 2003, the community decided to work towards a zero-waste future. Of course, not everyone was on board. The aging population was accustomed to incinerating most waste. Incineration was easy, and any negative effects were far-off problems.

Eventually, a few advocates became the majority, and now, almost everyone. At the end of 2018, only 19% of all trash created in Kamikatsu ended up in an incinerator or landfill. And importantly, businesses in Kamikatsu committed to stocking fewer disposable goods.

I’ve skipped over the ins and outs of this story to focus on its results. It’s a story of transformational change driven by a few dedicated people. A story of neighbors supporting one another and finding common cause.

Today, the waste management station in Kamikatsu is a community hub. It’s a place to catch up with neighbors, borrow tableware for special occasions, and upcycle old clothing into new products. It has created unity and fought isolation.

Our present is far removed from Kamikatsu’s, but our future doesn’t have to be. We must work together to create change. Think about what you recycle, and talk to your friends about it. Inform your coworkers and help your neighbors. Just like it takes all of us to create mountains of waste, it will take all of us to build a more sustainable future.

Recycling won’t save us. The residents of Kamikatsu know this. It’s more last-ditch effort than panacea. When we can’t reduce our waste production, and we can’t reuse what we’ve produced, we can turn to recycling to divert our waste from landfills.

Despite our best intentions, aspirational recycling is working against us. We should reduce and reuse. Then, we should recycle. Carefully.