Because we have been doing it for so long now, sorting your recycling from your garbage seems like more of a chore and a bore than a positive step to “save the planet”. It’s a good thing that recycling has become a routine in our lives. Just this weekend, I felt bad throwing a plastic bottle into a regular garbage can at the golf course because I didn’t see anything marked “recyclables” around the clubhouse. But have you ever thought about what happens to those recyclables once the big truck hauls them away every couple of weeks?
We’d like to think that every single article that we toss in the blue bin is being reused and replaces the manufacture of a new plastic item. But in many cities and states, that is not even close to being the case.
I came across an article by the Better Government Association that finds just 9% of recyclables put into the blue bins in Chicago actually makes it to recycling centers. The rest is collected by regular garbage trucks and is taken to the landfill. The same report finds a number of other cities have ridiculously low recycling rates–like Houston and New York City at just 17%, and Philadelphia at just 18%. The best recycling city in the country–San Jose–is only at 79%–meaning that one out of every five items put in the blue bins never gets recycled.
In the case of Chicago, the low recycling rate may be the result of fraud. The city contracts with Waste Management to pick up blue bins in about 40% of the neighborhoods. And the workers have sole discretion to determine if items will be collected–or rejected for garbage pickup due to “contamination”–meaning non-recyclables mixed in with acceptable items. Allegedly, Waste Management employees mark the majority of bins as “contaminated” without actually inspecting the contents. Given Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s penchant for covering up negative aspects of his administration, follow up on this will be slow or non-existent until his term ends.
But even where such shenanigans are not taking place, recycling is becoming a greater money-loser for municipalities every year. The amount collected by cities and counties far exceeds the needs of the plastics and paper industries. That has driven the price paid for recyclables to lower and lower levels–while expenses for manpower and equipment continue to go up. Ironically, that makes sustainability unsustainable. And what is the popular option for unsellable recyclables? The dump.
I’m not telling you to throw all of your plastics and papers in the garbage. Reusing even small amount is still better than burying 100% percent. Just know that you aren’t saving as much of the planet as you think you are.