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The Mixed Messages of Recycling Standards

The time has come for standardization


Imagine what it would be like if there were completely different rules for traffic management in different cities, counties and states within the country. What if a green light meant “stop” and yellow meant “go” in some cities, but not in others? What if busy intersections had no stop signs and some cities required drivers to stop, while others did not? These situations would not only be dangerous, but people would have to learn and remember all the different ways traffic is managed wherever they are driving. Such a situation would be nearly impossible to deal with as it would create significant driver confusion and greatly reduce the ability and efficiency of drivers to get from point A to point B. While this example seems a bit absurd, it’s exactly what is occurring with recycling.



Consumers today are faced with situations where items can be recycled in one area, but not in others. Products that have packaging that look the same are made of different materials where one is recyclable and the other is not. In the same city, some fast-food restaurants only accept Styrofoam for recycling, while others list a select number of items that can be recycled, while still others have a recycling bin with little to no instruction on what should be placed in it. While recycling facilities and re-processors have specifications and standards for sorting and processing recovered materials, such specifications and standards do not exist at the consumer level.


A Brief History of Recycling

Recycling in some form has existed for thousands of years; in fact, archeological evidence indicates it was practiced as early as 400 BC. In colonial times, when resources were scarce and a proper waste management system did not exist, reuse was common. Moving into the time of the Great Depression and World War II, waste was either reused or repurposed. As the environmental movement gained traction in the 60s and 70s, the recycling symbol was created, and Americans focused on reducing waste to reduce environmental burdens.


While recycling is now the second most common method of disposal after landfilling, with Americans recycling approximately 1.3 pounds per person annually, the rate of recycling is relatively low (21%) and a significant portion of materials that could be recycled are not. Many point to a lack of consumer education and standardization around recycling as some of the reasons why this is the case.



Given the significance of recycling, from reduced environmental impacts to the public’s perception, it is important that this waste management strategy is utilized as efficiently and effectively as possible. Right now, roadblocks on the path to efficiency include consumer confusion, contamination (which is largely related to consumer confusion), domestic end market demand and varying definitions of recycling across the US.



Have you ever walked up to a recycling bin, looked at the label that says what can (or can’t) be put in there and wondered if the item in your hand belongs in the bin? Perhaps you aren’t sure, but throw the item in there anyways, hoping that it can be recycled. This is a common behavior known as “wish-cycling” and ultimately causes more challenges and reduces the sustainability of recycling.


Maybe while traveling to another city or state there are different items listed on the bins as being acceptable to recycle, and you wonder why you can’t toss that in your own bin in your hometown. You see a plastic package in your hand that has the recycling symbol. Does this mean the item is recyclable, was made from recycled goods, or is recyclable in general? Or, does it require drop off to a specific location because it is not accepted by a curbside residential recycling program, such as the case is with plastic grocery bags? All of these understandable questions by consumers cause the ongoing roadblocks to recycling’s efficacy to persist.


Economic Pressure

China, one of the primary importers of US recyclables, banned 24 types of imported scrap metal and increased its contamination standards from 1.5% to 0.5% in 2017. Given this low contamination rate, recycling facilities are facing the costly and challenging task of reducing this to 0.5% or finding other end markets that will accept higher levels of contamination.


The impact of China’s policy decisions has placed considerable pressure on the recycling paradigm. Commodity prices have been at historic lows for long periods and are expected to stay this way for the foreseeable future, which puts the economics of recycling into question. While there are significant environmental benefits to recycling in most cases, recycling facilities must be able to operate profitably, or be subsidized by taxpayer dollars, to remain viable long-term.


The Importance of Consistency

As state goals continue to focus on increased diversion and recycling, it’s important that recyclables and the definitions to measure diversion are consistent. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In recent work, EREF identified 18 different ways that states are reporting and defining recycling with goals ranging from 10% to 80%. These definitions include composting, waste to energy and, in some cases, allowing landfill gas to energy to be claimed as recycling credits in lieu of actually increasing the volume of commodity recyclables. This variability in how recycling is defined makes it difficult to quantify and compare recycling rates from state to state. However, organizations like EREF, the U.S. EPA, and others are working towards standardized measurement methods and definitions for recycling.


Additionally, while consumers may recognize the recycling bin by its blue or green color, some of the steps taken in recent years include standardization of bin and product labels. Programs such as Recycle Across America and How 2 Recycle have created labels that indicate how to dispose of an item on bins and products, respectively. While such activities are helpful, the instructions provided by these labels are still dictated by what specific programs will and will not accept, and the instructions for how to recycle a material remain complex due to how the product is manufactured.


Research has shown that consumers are less likely to recycle if it is inconvenient or too complex. This makes a lot of sense since, when a material is ready to be thrown away, consumers are no longer invested in it and simply want it to go away. Even for the environmental conscious consumer, it is hypothesized that most will only go so far before getting frustrated with what to do with an item when its recyclability is unclear. Thus, while such programs are a start in the right direction, more refinement is likely needed to affect significant change in consumer behavior.


These challenges have led to the question: Is recycling dying? With limited end markets, issues surrounding contamination and how to best educate and incentivize consumers, it’s a fair question. Experience in other areas of society, such as noted above with traffic management, provide glaring and obvious clues to how these issues can be solved.


With the development of consistent definitions, similar measurement methods and a focus on education via standardized labeling of bins and products, consumers will become more educated and less confused. Furthermore, recycling rates would be accurately comparable, which would spur less contamination and allow cities and recycling programs to create more effective programs and management infrastructure.


By Bryan Staley, P.E., Ph.D., President & CEO, EREF & Catherine Ardoin, Communications Manager, EREF