The past few months, you may have seen headlines proclaiming the death of recycling. Reports of stalled overseas markets and recyclables piling up at facilities destined for nowhere have sparked a frenzy of fear that the beloved practice is in decline.

While there is substantial turmoil and frustrating challenges due to recent changes, this is not the end of recycling. Instead, this could be the beginning of a fuller, more sustainable system that can unlock environmental and economic benefits we have yet to fully reach. But only if we take action now.

Why the upheaval?

For decades, the United States has exported one third of its recyclables, and half of that has been going to China. Companies have relied on buyers in China to purchase the low-quality, contaminated recyclables that domestic buyers didn’t want. But after a few years of warning, China has instituted a ban on foreign waste, known as the "National Sword." This policy bans 24 types of imported scrap materials and has set a 0.5 percent contamination limit on bales of recyclables. To ensure this ban is a catalyst that will propel us towards a stronger recycling system, we need to address the root cause of contamination: us.

The good news is that a few changes can go a long way. A first step to curbing contamination is to stop "wish-cycling," which is when well-intentioned folks put items that they *hope* are recyclable into the bin. The motive of wanting to recycle is positive, but it can result in incorrect items contaminating actual recyclables and making them unfit for sale. Contamination also occurs when we put stuff coated in food and beverage residue into the bin. Residue lowers the quality of materials, meaning they are less likely to be sold and incorporated into new products, saving virgin materials for another use. The average Material Recovery Facility (where our recyclables go to be sorted and baled) receives materials with up to 32 percent contamination.

Recycling in the U.s. is a $105 billion industry and employs over half a million workers. Using recycled materials instead of brand new ones saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes up to 95 percent. There are measured benefits to this system, and even more when we consider the costs we pay by not recycling — costs that are levied on the environment and communities through unsustainable resource extraction, use, and disposal.

So how do we fix it?

salad in plastic box Plastic takeout containers technically can be recycled if done in the right way. (Photo: Patcharida/Shutterstock)

We need to create a stronger system, but something as expansive and complex as recycling won’t be solved overnight. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways we can take actions starting today. As individuals, we can:

  • Let our local officials know that recycling is valued by the community.
  • Hold companies that are producing wasteful, non-recyclable goods made without recycled content accountable.
  • Draw attention to these concerns on social media and other communication platforms.
  • Help improve the supply of recyclables by following local recycling rules. (Check your town's website to search by material and ZIP code.)
  • Make sure your recyclables are clean — meaning no food or beverage residue — empty and dry.
  • Intentionally purchase products made with recycled content to displace the need for virgin material. We need to reduce consumption and reuse as often as we can. (Recycle is the last of the three Rs for a reason.)

Many people don't know how recycling works. We’re expected to participate without knowing if our recyclables ever make it back onto the shelf as new products or where they go when they leave our homes. Despite these mysteries, an estimated 94 percent of Americans think recycling is valuable, and this doesn’t sound like a group of people ready to toss out the whole system. We can use this disruption in recycling to repair its broken parts, achieve greater environmental benefits, and reduce production of virgin materials that can leave devastating imprints on ecosystems, communities, and the climate.

Beth Porter is Green America's Climate & Recycling director. If you're interested in a deeper dive, her new book, "Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System" (Rowman & Littlefield; Nov 6, 2018) continues this conversation and offers solutions on how to improve practices from our homes and communities to wider policy and systemic changes. To learn more or to contact her, visit BethRecycles.com.

Why we need to be smarter about recycling
There are several steps each of us can take to create a more effective recycling system, says book author Beth Porter.