By Sarah Swiersz

A recent graduate of the University of Central Florida and lifelong resident of SWFL

Recycling is arguably the baseball or apple pie of the United States’ sustainability efforts: It’s a cultural mainstay that, for many Americans, feels like a good thing. Amidst the ubiquitous waste our lifestyles produce day in, day out—the coffee cups, tossed leftovers, product wrappers, and to-go containers—recycling is a hopeful outlet. Recycling is a chance for sustainability in a consumption-driven, disposable world. But what if recycling isn’t entirely the wholesome act of Earth citizenship we are taught it is?

Why do we recycle? The answer is complex. 

At the surface, it seems pretty clear why we recycle: Because it’s a good thing to do for the environment. But when and how did we come up with recycling, and why do we think it’s so good for the environment?

A recent investigative project by NPR and PBS Frontline uncovered the corporate greed that fueled public campaigns to promote recycling. While an understanding of the limits of recycling has been around since the 70s, that recycled materials like plastic could only be properly recycled 1-2 times before facing their destiny as waste, recycling campaigns and advertisements saw an uptick in the 90s. Though their messages of reusing resources and the value of recycled plastic economically and environmentally seemed to be from environmentalists, these ads were funded by the plastics industry, made up of oil and gas corporations that provide the base ingredient for cheap plastics, crude oil.

The benefit of funding these campaigns was twofold: Oil and gas corporations figured instilling a cultural connection between recycling and environmentalism would distract from the need for a just transition from our fossil-fuel-based economy to renewable energy systems and a regenerative economy. Also, convincing the public that cheap plastic was recyclable gold kept the plastics market alive and thriving, and safe from public scrutiny.

A combination of nefarious corporate campaigns that promote recycling for corporate greed and well-meaning educational campaigns that promote recycling for environmental reasons have led many Americans to equate recycling with helping the environment. While this consciousness of environmental responsibility is good, the positive feeling that comes from recycling can lead people to internalize the corporate messages that falsely present recycling as a panacea for the environmental ills of our consumption-driven, disposable society. Another bad outcome of our cultural concept of recycling is wishful recycling.

Wishful recycling is when someone recycles an item they hope or figure is recyclable, even when it is not. Many of us figure anything paper, plastic, or cardboard can be recycled. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Recycling machinery is very sensitive to the shape and composition of a material, meaning a lot of paper and plastic objects will actually hurt a recycling operation. For example, plastic supermarket bags will jam standard recycling machinery and need specialized equipment to be recycled. Further, contaminated recyclables, such as those covered in organic matter (i.e., food), can hold up an entire recycling operation. Greasy pizza boxes are a great example of a contaminated recyclable. Contamination brings us to the economics of recycling.

Recycling operates in a complex, fickle market. Recyclables are products, and solid waste managers have to find buyers who will purchase them for a profitable price. The market of suppliers and buyers is extremely complex. The sheer amount of items of various shapes and material composition means the recycling market optimizes for different buyers who focus on specific items they have the machinery to recycle and turn into a profitable product—which means a lot of materials that could be recycled won’t because there is simply no buyer. The market is also global, and the U.S. has relied upon overseas buyers, especially from China. The fickle setup of this system was exposed in 2019, when China stopped accepting our recyclables and the U.S. recycling market faced collapse.

Even when there is a flow of recyclables to a buyer, it is still difficult to keep the market running smoothly. Recycling is exchanged as a bulk product, and contaminated batches—which create mechanical problems for the buyer recycling the material and lower-quality output—do not make a lot of money. Essentially, the less contamination in the bulk product of recyclables, the higher the chance of finding a buyer in the market, and the higher the price the buyer will pay.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: “Recycling has all of these problems—is it any good? Should we even try to recycle?”

Recycling isn’t inherently bad. Recycling has a function as a climate solution, and it becomes dysfunctional when that role is distorted. Recycling is not the first step to or focus of transforming our waste systems to be sustainable and climate resilient. Recycling is one of a portfolio of climate solutions in our waste systems, especially as we figure out the technological and social aspects of the transition toward zero-waste, carbon-neutral consumption and waste systems.

Recycling has a role to play as we Grow Climate Solutions.

In the Zero Waste Hierarchy, recycling comes after the more fundamental steps of (1) rethinking and redesigning consumption and materials, (2) reducing consumption and refusing unnecessary items and consumption, and (3) reusing materials. Ideally, recycling is one of the last steps in transforming our waste systems—a final resort for waste that has fallen through the first three steps of rethinking/redesigning, reducing/refusing, and reusing. While recycling isn’t the main thread, it is one fabric we can weave into the tapestry of climate solutions our waste management systems desperately need.

Now that we have a clear-eyed view of the role of recycling as a climate solution, we can talk about the next step: recycling right.

Where do we go from here? Recycling Right. 

As wishful recycling shows, it’s important to have clear guidelines and proper education about recycling correctly in local systems. To recycle right, think: local, local, local. This is especially true across SWFL, where there are nine different waste management jurisdictions within the Charlotte-Lee-Collier tri-county region. These jurisdictions each have unique contracts with different solid waste management haulers to fit their residential and commercial needs. These contracts are further complex when local ordinances determine residential contracts but commercial contracts are made individually. Obligations for what materials are recycled vary by contract and depends upon how waste management companies interact with the market. Recycling correctly is critical for ensuring our local recycling efforts are effective and create resilient waste management systems in the complex, fickle market of recycling. Here are some steps you can take right now to recycle right in SWFL:

  • Identify the recycling jurisdiction in which you live.
  • Understand exactly what materials you can recycle residentially.
    • If you own a business, identify if your contract is mandated or individualized and exactly what materials you can recycle.
  • Avoid wishful recycling by:
    • Recycling only the materials you can locally/contractually.
    • Ensuring those materials are in good recycling shape (they are not wet or contaminated with organics).