229 million Americans have access to a curbside recycling program, that is nearly 75% of all households in the US. Of those 229 million the overwhelming majority participate in their curbside recycling program. In most municipalities this means adding their plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and aluminum cans into the blue bin and placing it on the curb weekly. This is great, please don’t stop! We all love you for it, your kids love you for it, your kids kids love you for it. Unfortunately this is where the happy ending starts and ends.
Recycling is expensive. After your bin is collected in a large truck with hundreds of other bins it will either go to a transfer station or in some cases to the recycling center directly. From here the recyclables must be sorted from the waste, then sorted by material. There are literally hundreds of recyclable materials, but for this example let’s focus on the core materials: metals, plastics, glasses and papers. Within these categories they must then be sorted further, the aluminum from the steel from the copper and so on. This process of sorting can be imagined as a jar of jelly beans, needing to be sorted by all 50 flavors- extremely slow and labor intensive. Once finally, this is done the recycling centers are left with some valuable materials like aluminum and some less valuable materials like plastic.
From here, those sorted recyclables need to be transported, cleaned and ultimately processed before being made into something new. It is a tremendously complex process.
Now, the economic issue. Metals like aluminum or gold are fairly expensive to mine and refine from raw. Plastics, made from oil are extremely cheap to drill and convert from crude. Metals maintain their quality when recycled, plastics do not- where a virgin material is of higher quality. This leaves recycles with an economic challenge: a gross oversupply of low quality expense to recycle plastics where virgin material is more affordable and of higher quality. Recyclers, when given the choice will almost always chose to not sort out those low value plastics and instead send them to be landfilled, incinerated or sadly dumped in oceans. This is why, despite 75% of Americans having access to recycling only 9% of plastics are recycled.
Many other developed countries have adopted tools to improve this, in Japan for example households have 8+ bins to sort their recycling at home. This at home sorting removes some of the financial burden from the recyclers, giving lower cost materials like plastic a better chance of reuse. Unfortunately in the United States these programs do not widely exist, one that does however is choosing materials like aluminum that will be recycled and made into something new.