Recycling Isn’t Working

2 things that might be important as background context-

  1. My husband is (was) super passionate about recycling. It was pretty much the only green thing he was into, but he was real mad when counties didn’t recycle.
  2. I’ve gotten pretty into the green thing lately, so my husband jokes that he’s going to come home to solar panels on the house one day (next house for sure).

Once upon a time (about 6 months ago), I was a naive woman who thought that if I put something in the recycling bin, it went to the (local) recycling center where eeeeverything was recycled and turned into a new blanket or something.

Well. I’ve learned a thing or two in the last six months and can confidently say that, unfortunately, that’s just absolutely not the truth.

If you’ve been following my blog for anytime, I know what you’re thinking- “Alex, why in the freaking world are you writing about such a boring topic? Outside of your usual mom stuff?”

My interest in this all started at the end of last year when I got big into purging and minimizing and just being a little more intentional with what we had. That just gave way to lots of reading and realizing how much waste we create in our home. In searching for ways to minimize our waste and become more environmentally friendly, there has, again, been lots of reading. What I’ve read has honestly really changed my way of thought, and I just cannot believe how some of the things I was learning at 30 years old was not well-known information.

recycling and why it isn't workingq

While I am no expert, I really want to share what I’ve learned in the hopes of making this info more well-known. The phrase “know better, do better” comes to mind. While we are not at all perfect in our home, we are definitely striving to do better, and I love the thought of encouraging just one other person to do this, as well.

So. Why isn’t recycling working?

91% of what goes into the recycling bin is NOT recycled. Another study suggested a mere NINE percent of recyclables are actually recycled. Y’all. That’s unreal to me. Do you know how much we put in the recycling bin, thinking we were being good citizens of Earth and saving waste? We weren’t. This really shifted my mindset to start thinking of even recyclable material as waste. I also shared these stats with my husband (refer to beginning 2 points). I kindly suggested that he redirect his passion for recycling to other green ways of living, because turns out recycling isn’t very green. And he should jump on board with my solar panels.

I really started looking more into this after book club. Yes, that sounds unrelated. But I was educated by one of my book club friends when she mentioned that Charlotte was probably going to get rid of recycling. Um, what?? So I quickly went home and got to Googling.

Remember when I thought recycling was sent to a local recycling center? While those exist, almost all of them had contracts with China, where China purchased the recycling and recycled it. China recently stopped buying recycling from the US because over 60% of it was contaminated (meaning things that can’t actually be recycled, meaning waste). As a result, Charlotte (and probably many other cities and counties) can’t recycle everything coming in. So they’re just not going to.

Similar to how China stopped buying our recycling because it was 60% contaminated, cities will not continue paying for a recycling truck and a trash truck when the majority of recycling gets sent to the trash. They do not have the manpower to sift through everything, so instead, if a load is contaminated enough, the whole load is sent to a landfill.

So what’s the point?

Reading all of this sent me on a quest to educate myself on what was non-contaminated recycling- basically, how to recycle well. This may sound silly, but the whole reason China stopped buying our recycling and why cities are considering stopping is because Americans have no clue how to recycle. (This is not a judgement. I just learned and am still learning!)

I looked up the recycling guidelines for my county and was so surprised by what was considered contaminated, or not accepted for recycling.

First up- GLASS. WHAT?! How in the heck is glass not recyclable? My local recycling centers do accept glass if you take it in personally, but if you put it in the recycling bin, it will make the load contaminated. Apparently this is because they were receiving too much broken glass, and that cannot be recycled in their process. Thus you can take in whole glass items to the recycling center, to ensure they’re whole. Basically we’ve had 3 years of contaminating our recycling just by using glass. Who knew?! Now, I’m honestly keeping glass bottles just because they’re great to have on hand, but I also plan on taking any glass items to the center myself every few weeks.

Mixed paper. This means 98% of cardboard. I made that percentage up, but it’s a lot. Cereal boxes aren’t accepted, basically no boxes that toothpaste or deodorant or anything like that comes in. It essentially can only be cardboard boxes, like shipping boxes. Which is crazy.

Plastic tubs with labels. Like yogurt containers. You need to take the label off to recycle the tub. Craziness.

recycling yogurt container
Aldi does a great job at putting clear labels on their products and letting you know how to recycle them!

Plastics marked 1 or 2 can be recycled, but plastics marked 3-7 are not recyclable. What does this mean? Pay attention to your products. Mooost bottles will have the little recycle symbol somewhere on them. Some will say it’s ok, some will have that symbol with a line through it, telling you not to recycle. Other’s have the symbol with a number in it- if that number is a 1 or a 2, it can be recycled. If it’s a 3-7, it is sent to a landfill.

There are basically so many things I never thought about. I’ve been paying way more attention to the labels of things we already have, being more considerate of what I’m buying, and actually rinsing and cleaning out containers (too much food is a big reason recycling is labeled as contaminated).

So what can we do?

Basically what I feel like I see everywhere- be a mindful consumer. Be conscious of what we’re purchasing and consider if there’s an alternative way to get it that creates less waste. Consider if there’s anyway to reuse items instead of throwing them out. Donate instead of tossing. Pay attention to the packaging you do have and any special recycling instructions. Educate yourself. Read up on your own townships’ recycling guidelines.

recycling in north carolina

You do not need to upend your life. You honestly don’t even need to have a crazy passion for recycling. Know better, do better. Small steps make a big difference. If everyone could just follow the guidelines of recycling, maybe not as much of it would end up in landfills.

Also, please remember that I am also still learning and figuring this out. This is not meant to be preachy or better-than-you or judgemental. Honestly, none of this was common knowledge for me, and so I just wanted to write this to compile a lot of what I’ve learned so far in the hopes that it might encourage 1 person to pay more attention to their towns’ guidelines.

I know this was out of the norm for me, but becoming more eco-friendly and trying to make the planet better for my kiddos is an increasing passion of mine, and I’m looking forward to sharing more as I learn!

In case you missed it, check out my posts on how we’re going more eco friendly in the kitchen and bathroom!

I’d love to hear of ways that you are reducing your waste or working on reducing your recycling (because it’s waste, too)!

why recycling isn't working

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