How Much Actually Gets Recycled and What Can You Do?

The rise of eco-consumerism presents itself in many forms. Citizens value their ability to recycle outdated or used products. The lengths we take to ensure sustainability typically pay off when greater systems work with us.

Unfortunately, the recycling system is working against Americans. After we place our empty water bottles and soup cans in our blue bins, the process is out of sight and out of mind. The process began degrading in the past decade, pushing the nation to search for solutions.

The Broken System

The U.S. generates nearly 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste each year. Each individual produces 4.9 pounds of waste every day. As sea levels rise, extinction rates grow and landfills expand, society searches for sustainable solutions.

Of the yearly waste generated, Americans compost and recycle 32.1%, hoping to reduce environmental degradation. Society is doing its part to enhance sustainability, but the government fails to meet similar standards. Nearly all the disposal responsibility currently falls on consumers.

The government provides minimal residential recycling education, causing improper disposal methods. Paper, plastic, aluminum, batteries, tires, used oil and glass are the common global recyclables. Residents blindly place these items in their bins without prior knowledge of their counties’ restrictions.

Each county has limitations on the materials they recycle. While some regions accept all the products listed above, others remain restricted. Residents can check their local recycling limitations before sorting their waste, ensuring adequate processing.    

The government fails to inform the public of general sorting requirements. Straws, bags, plastic utensils and food containers must remain in the garbage bin, even if they contain recyclable materials. When placed in recycling bins, processing facilities remove the materials and dispose of them.

Facilities transfer nonrecyclables to landfills, bury or burn them. Some communities burn waste, generating fuel for energy. Plastic contains oil and gas, which create heat when burned. When captured, the output can replace dirty energy deriving from fossil fuels.

Few communities engage in waste burning because of the harsh environmental effects. Plastic releases chemical toxins when heated, like volatile organic chemicals and polycyclic organic matter. It also emits heavy metals and toxic chemicals, like dioxin, into the environment.   

Dioxin is one of many human harming toxins released from heating plastic. It causes hormone imbalances, reproductive and developmental problems, immune damage and cancer. Burning was a standard nonrecyclable disposal method in China before they initiated their ban.


The U.S. is searching for solutions to the issues presented above. Sorting contaminated materials and preventing ocean pollution are new jobs for the U.S. Before 2018, America outsourced nearly all its recycling to China.

China reduced its plastic recycling by 99%, overwhelming American facilities. Communities in Oregon and Maine failed to meet processing demands, shutting down their recycling programs. The residents in this region now place all waste in their garbage bins, causing pollution and other environmental harms.

After China initiated the ban, ocean plastic pollution increased. Plastic debris impacts 267 marine species globally. Ocean pollution presents fatal consequences from ingestion, infection, entanglement, starvation, suffocation and drowning. We can limit the negative environmental impacts of misplaced recyclables by practicing sustainability.

Material Repurposing

Rather than burning recyclables or placing them in landfills, the government can pay companies to repurpose old materials. Companies must carefully evaluate the impact of their recycled products. Some businesses reuse rubber for playground mulching, exposing children to toxic elements.

Other companies successfully recycle materials, creating sustainable shoes, jewelry, sunglasses and more. When businesses work with the government to reuse nonrecyclables, we can reduce pollution and landfill expansion.


Fast fashion articles contain synthetic textiles made of plastic. This industry is the driving force of microplastic ocean pollution. Rather than throwing old clothes away, contributing to marine degradation, you can take them to a thrift store.

Secondhand shopping provides a solution to two problems. It offers a recycling outlet for unused clothing, and it limits fast fashion production. When we normalize thrifting, we reduce the demand for microplastic-producing products.

Company Responsibility

Maine recently enacted a bill creating a Producer Responsibility Organization. The state charges companies for the amount of waste they generate. They use this money to fund the recycling facilities.

Germany produced a similar law in the 90s, placing recycling responsibilities on the manufacturer. The U.S. can adopt this practice, holding our companies to similar standards.

Make a Change Today

You can help boost the efficiency of our recycling system by learning your county’s material restrictions. Some American companies, especially in the tech industry, began taking back used materials. Before throwing away nonrecyclable products, hop online and evaluate any mail-back programs.

The residential recycling impact is small, so we must hold large corporations responsible for repurposing waste. When you can, vote to enact product responsibility laws. You may also vote to increase recycling education programs, helping citizens sort their waste to reduce pollution and increase sustainability.

About the Author

Jane is the Editor-in-Chief of and an environmental writer covering green technology, sustainability and environmental news.

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