The USA’s Recycling Problem


Image via CDENVIRO

Hanna Spenst, Writer

In the United States today, less than 9% of the plastic that has supposedly been recycled is actually being recycled. This means that 91% of this plastic is just sitting in landfills, breaking down slowly into dangerous microplastics. Why are these plastics not getting recycled? 

One of the many reasons why these plastics are not being recycled is due to the huge contamination problem that recycling facilities face. According to an article published by Renee Cho from Columbia Climate School, “Many recyclables become contaminated when items are placed in the wrong bin, or when a dirty food container gets into the recycling bin. Contamination can prevent large batches of material from being recycled.” This is a serious problem because when large amounts of plastic are unable to be recycled, these plastics get taken into landfills. Landfills emit landfill gas that consists mostly of methane and carbon dioxide. These are harmful pollutants and are not good for our environment. 

Another thing that is a big problem with recycling in the United States is when people recycle single-use plastic bags. Contrary to popular belief, these bags can not be recycled. When they do get recycled, these bags get stuck inside machinery. When this happens, loads of recycling get put on hold, so that the workers can cut out the plastic bags and get things working again. 

Another great problem that the recycling industry faces is the fact that only 1% of polypropylenes such as styrofoam, clothing, and tape gets recycled. The biggest reason why we don’t recycle this is the fact that polystyrene foam is 95% air. Because of this, this material is not cost-effective to either store or ship. The leftover recycling gets taken to the landfill just like almost everything else. It takes around twenty to thirty years for polypropylene to decompose.

So, this leaves the question, is there any way we can fix these problems? 

According to Renee Cho from Columbia Climate School, “The key to fixing recycling in the U.S. is developing the domestic market.” If we were to develop a domestic market then we could improve technology for recovering and sorting plastics. We could also incorporate more recycled material into products, and then get these products on the marketplace and create a demand for them. Even though the domestic market may result in our air being less clean because of the more recycling plants, we could further advance our technology in order to help clean our air. 

In conclusion, the United States has a huge recycling problem, and despite all of the efforts being made, things are not getting much better. Most of the plastics that are trying to get recycled,  just end up sitting in landfills and causing harm to our environment. This is due to the fact that there isn’t enough money, people aren’t being conscientious, and people aren’t educated on the effects that throwing a single-use plastic bag or a greasy pizza box can have on loads and loads of recycling. Hopefully one day, the US will have the money and technology to fix this problem.