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Is This the End of Recycling?

Is This the End of Recycling?

When you think about living a more eco-friendly lifestyle, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Is it bringing your own bags to the grocery store? Maybe a reusable water bottle? Or maybe it's recycling. 

I feel like recycling has been DRILLED into our brains from the moment we get to elementary school. 

We learn about the garbage bin, the recycle bin and how this one simple thing - recycling will save the world. 

Now I'm not trying to bulldoze over your childhood dreams, but recycling has officially hit DEFCON 1 level crisis. 

Before you panic, let's remember recycling was never the solution. Recycling should be seen as a last resort rather than our first line of defense. (Do you like all my military strategy talk?) 

And at the end of the day, I'm actually hopeful that this recycling crisis will lead to better recycling facilities, more domestic markets, separate stream recycling, and less contamination. 

But, before we can get to my hopes and dreams - let's talk about the problem. 

China, in January of 2018, the largest global buyer of recycled paper and plastic, stopped accepting all imports of anything over a 1% contamination rater. 

What does that mean?

It means that virtually no plastic or paper is currently being recycled. The best recycling facilities in the US are operating at around a 4% contamination rate which is AMAZING! 

4% is amazing?

Sure is. Contamination rates can be as high as 30%. YIKES. 

How do things get contaminated?

I am SO glad you asked! Contamination is when incorrect items OR dirty/soiled correct items get placed in the wrong bin. 

For instance, maybe you just had a pizza party and you placed all of your pizza boxes in the recycling bin. It's great that you want them to be recycled, but if they have food or grease on them... you're actually contaminating the recycling stream. 

Greasy and food contaminated paper can actually ruin an entire bale of paper. Your good efforts could be causing some real damage. 

Check out the proper way to dispose of a pizza box

Contamination can also happen when you just put the wrong item inside the recycling or compost bin. 

For instance, you CANNOT put things like batteries in your recycle bin. You need to take them to a special location for battery recycling. You can find drop off points in Best Buy or Target as well as other locations. 

When you put batteries in your curbside bin, when they go to compact the recycling it will explode endangering the workers! Please don't endanger people. 

Other commonly misplaced items in the recycling bin are plastic bags, shredded paper, and tetra paks. 

But sometimes people get really creative trying to recycle hoses, shower curtains, bowling balls, and Christmas lights. 

Just because you want it to be recycled doesn't mean it WILL be recycled. 


It's ok, most of us are! The best way to combat this problem is to head to your local waste hauler's website and read up on what they do and don't accept. Most companies have a great list of accepted items. 

You don't have to be a pro or a rocket scientist to figure it out. If you're a little confused, print the list out and put it on your bin! (And, do it for all your friends and fam!)

Does this even matter if China isn't accepting our recycling anymore? 

YES! It matters even more now. If we're going to meet their 1% requirement that means we're all going to need to step up and recycle a bit better.

I recycle right, but my neighbors don't... do my actions matter? 

Absolutely! It really does matter, and education is so important. Maybe your neighbors haven't looked up what's actually accepted. 

See if you can plan a neighborhood meeting where you talk about what is and isn't recyclable in your area, and tell people about the problem AND the solutions. 

Most people want to do good. They're just often misinformed.  

How else can I help? 

So many ways. 

  1. Remember good ol' reduce and reuse? We tend to skip over them for their flashy friend recycling, but one of the best ways you can help is to first reduce the amount of waste you have in the first place. 
  2. Reuse by choosing reusable items instead of disposable ones. If you're looking for inspiration check out our post on 10 ways to cut single-use plastic from your daily life
  3. Reuse what you have. Try and find creative ways to upcycle the ways you have brought into your home. 
  4. Make sure your paper is clean and dry before putting it into the recycle bin. 
  5. Make sure bottles and cans have all excess liquid tapped out of them. 
  6. Make sure that your plastic/glass isn't soiled. If you have a pasta sauce jar give it a quick rinse before recycling (or better yet, find a way to reuse the jar!) 
  7. Support companies with take-back or closed loop programs. See how Pela is closing the loop
  8. Check out Terracycle and see how you can deal with hard to recycle items.
  9. Educate your friends and neighbors. 
  10. Buy products made from recycled materials. After all, are you really recycling if you're not buying products made from recycled materials? 

Why are you so hopeful about the future of recycling? 

Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. 

Recycling is a business, not a charity and many of us have viewed it as a charity for so long. Now, that is coming to an end. 

Our current system was broken. A 30% contamination rate isn't good for anyone. I think China stopping our trash from coming to their country is a great move because it's going to make us take a long hard look at our habits. 

In the end, I think this will result in a better, cleaner, and more robust recycling system than ever before!

If you want to see a cleaner world and a future for recycling, consider sharing this article with your friends and family. And, don't forget to give them a bit of a recycling lesson next time you're over for dinner!