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We Do Recycling Wrong

This is a paper written by Sydney Sherman From Green Teens Curbside Recycling, LLC

Sydney Sherman

05 November 2020

We Do Recycling Wrong!

Did you know that the world produces 2.1 billion metric tons of waste per year? That is enough to fill 822,000 Olympic sized swimming pools each year. Out of all of that waste, only 16% is recycled. So what is recycling? Everyone knows what it is, but do they know what it actually means? Recycling is collecting materials, processing them and turning them into new materials instead of allowing them to be discarded as waste in landfills or by being incinerated. The most common materials that can be recycled are paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum and glass. Another way of recycling is composting. Compostable items are any material that can be turned into soil. This is one of the simplest ways to process materials. It’s very low tech. Simply pile up the materials outside and turn the pile every once and a while and in a few months you have enriched soil. This compost has been popular among gardeners for a very long time, but very few people that are not gardeners compost their biodegradable materials. There are different systems used to recycle these materials. The most common system of recycling is having a stream. This means that material is grouped together to be processed. This group of material is called a stream. The United States has a single stream which means that there is no sorting material. All of the material is put in the same place and is sorted later. If you were to sort glass and paper into two groups, then you would have a two stream recycling system. Out of every country in the world, Germany is by far the best at recycling. In total, they recycle 68% of their waste. The United States only recycles 35% of their waste. The United States ranks 25th in the world's rankings. The United States does recycling wrong and something needs to be done about it.

The United States holds 4% of the world's population and 12% of the world's waste. There is 254 million tons of waste in the United States every year and recycles only 35%. In comparison, China and India hold 36% of the world’s population and they recycle 27% of the world's waste. This shows that on a per person rate, the people in the United States produce more waste than many other areas of the world. On average, each U.S. adult produces 234 pounds of plastic per year. There are many recycling programs available for the U.S. population. 94% of the people have some type of recycling available, 30% have a curbside service available and 43% have curbside and drop off services. In the United States, all recycling programs are voluntary. There are no laws in the United States in place to encourage the citizens to recycle.

Most of the curbside pickups have a single stream program. A single stream is paper, plastic, cardboard and aluminum together instead of sorted. The material is collected, and then sorted at huge sorting facilities. These facilities have huge conveyor belt systems that move the material along to different stages to sort the material out. Sorting material on a massive scale like this leads to a high rate of contamination. I have first hand knowledge with single stream service. My family has owned a recycling business for about 6 years now. Our business is called “Green Teens Curbside Recycling”. It’s a curbside pickup service. I am a co-owner of the business and the other owners are my dad and brother. We live in Owasso, Oklahoma. In our community the city doesn’t have a curbside pickup program. The city provides a recycling drop off center. Although this is one of the biggest facilities around, it can be very inconvenient to haul sort your material and then haul it to the drop off center. Because it’s so inconvenient, very few people in our community recycle. We provide a single stream service. This means that you put all of your material together in our two recycling cans that we provide. You don’t have to sort it, which makes it much easier to recycle. Then every other week, you put your cans out by the curb and we come and pick them up. We collect all the material in a big trailer. We then take the material and unload it at the big recycling facility in Tulsa. This facility is called the TRT (Tulsa Recycling Transfer center). We currently have over 250 customers. Our goal is to grow to over 300 customers by the end of the year. Over the past few years of operating our business we have encountered several issues with the material provided by our customers. There is one major problem that won’t go away. The problem is food contamination. An example would be that someone eats on a paper plate. The plate is covered with the food that they ate. However because the plate is made out of paper, the place it in our recycling cans. At the recycling center, this plate will probably be discarded and transferred to the landfill. If it is not discarded it will be included in the pile of paper. This pile will then be bailed up and transported to a facility to be processed. This dirty plate will increase the amount of contamination in the bail of material. If the contamination rate is too high it may cause the whole bail to be discarded. High contamination rates also causes some countries not to accept our material. A few years ago China stopped accepting material with high contamination rates. This had drastic impacts on the recycling industry in the United States. It decreased the demand for our recycled material, and drove the prices paid for the materials down drastically. The low prices for the materials has had many negative effects on the industry. This is the biggest problem of a single stream service and it’s a problem because the customers don’t wash out the material in the correct standard. The material must have no food left on the containers or else it will not get recycled at the facility. Another problem is something called wish-cycling. Wish cycling is people putting things in recycling that really won’t get recycled at the sorting facility. An example is clothes hangers, they are plastic but won’t actually get recycling. Plastic material has different ratings of 1-4 based on the type of plastic that is used in it’s construction. The sorting facility accepts number 1 and number 2 plastic. The most common number 1 and 2 materials are plastic bottles, like pop and water bottles and milk jugs. Pizza boxes are another example of wish-cycling. They won’t get accepted because of the grease on the box. Packing material and plastic bags won’t make it past the facility either. The plastic bags actually get caught in the rollers on the conveyor system, making the process way more difficult. The sorting facility will actually have to shut down the line and clean the bags out of the rollers. In general, the United States population is lacking in their general knowledge of recycling. They don’t have a good understanding of what can be recycled and what can’t be recycled. This has led to many questions from our customers. We are constantly asked if you can recycle this or that from our customers. People will put the strangest things in with their recycling. This lack of knowledge has led to high contamination rates and had negative impacts to the recycling industry.

Germany is the top country for recycling material. The top 4 countries are Germany at number 1, Austria at number 2, South Korea at number 3 and Whales at number 4. Just to put it in perspective, the United states is ranked at number 25 on the scale. Germany produces 402 million metric tons of waste per year. Of that, 78% is recycled. That is 317 million metric tons that are recycled every year. This is compared to the 35% rate in the United States. Germany does so well with recycling because of the recycling culture that their government has encouraged with different legislation. Germany has six streams compared to the United States who mostly only have 1 stream. There are 6 different colors that represent different kinds of material. Each bin or can is colored to represent what should be placed inside of it. The black can is for general waste, blue can is for paper, yellow is for plastic, white is for clear glass, green is for colored glass and brown is for compostable material. Germany also fines their public for not following their recycling laws. For individuals, fines are as high as 2500 euros, which is $2800 in U.S. money. For companies, fines are as high as 200,000 euros, which is $234,824 in U.S. dollars. There are 3 laws that Germany has in place to keep encourage it’s citizens to recycle. The first law is the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act. It was established in 1996. “This act applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. In other words, businesses need to avoid producing any waste, recycle what they do produce, and anything that can’t be recycled must be disposed of in an environmentally safe way” (Brassaw). The second law is the Packaging Ordinance. “This ruling made in 1991 required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can)” (Brassaw). The third law is called The Green Dot. “The Green Dot is just that, a green dot that’s placed on the outside of packaging indicating it must be accepted by recyclers. Depending on their packaging, manufacturers pay a fee to the DSD (Dual System Germany) and are then given permission to place the green dot on their packaging. Companies using the green dot have promised to abide by all of Germany’s recycling laws” (Brassaw). These three laws have greatly increased the number of German citizens who recycle and have created a stronger recycling culture.

The United States has many problems with the way they recycle. The government doesn’t have mandates to force people to recycle. The people that do recycle voluntarily do it because they want to. In the United States, recycling is all a single stream which creates too much contamination. Because there are so many items that are contaminated, the prices for materials are very low. The contamination also limits the United States and prevents other countries from accepting materials from them. The solution to all of these problems corresponds to the laws in Germany. The first way to improve the way the United States recycles is to eliminate the single stream system. Doing so will greatly reduce the amount of contamination in the items that are recycled. The second way is to enforce mandatory separation and sorting at each person's residents or property. Another way is to add compostable material to the streams. This isn’t a part of many recycling programs, but it should be and would greatly reduce the amount of waste. Next, the government should require residents to recycle. This is the only way that people will participate in recycling on a large scale. When citizens don’t follow protocol, they should be fined. Another way is for the government to host a nationwide educational program. Doing so will lower the levels of contamination and will increase the general knowledge of recycling for the public. Lastly, the government needs to give tax incentives to manufacturers that use recycled materials in their product. This will increase the domestic use of recycled materials and decrease the exporting of material to third world countries where it’s not properly processed in most cases.

The single stream culture in the United States has led to multiple issues in the recycling industry. Major changes need to be made to ensure improvement in the recycling industry in the United States. Germany has shown us that there is a better way for society to recycle. The United States will need to embrace new recycling methods if they want to improve their 25th ranking in the industry. Major changes are needed, for example sorting the material before it’s picked up is an essential change that is needed. The only way to move our single stream culture to a multiple stream culture is through government mandates. In conclusion, the government will need to force changes onto the citizens of the United States in order to change the recycling culture and fix the way that we do recycling in the United States.

Works Cited

Brian BrassawBrian formerly managed the Earth911 Recycling Search and shared green living tips and tricks on Earth911’s Instagram. “Germany: A Recycling Program That Actually Works.” Earth 911, 4 Oct. 2017,

DeSilver, Drew. “Recycling Perceptions, Realities Vary Widely in U.S.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020,

Dobush, Grace. “The Brutal Reality Of Being The World's 'Best' Recycler.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 19 July 2019,

Holden, Emily. “The U.S. Is Way Worse at Recycling than Other Developed Countries.” Grist, 5 July 2019,

“National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 Mar. 2020, time, recycling rates have,over 35 percent in 2017.

Written by

Alex Gray, Senior Writer. “Germany Recycles More than Any Other Country.” World Economic Forum,

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