WTF is going on with recycling in the US?

If you’re reading this it’s probably because you’ve heard of the slight major recycling crisis going on in the US. Or maybe you just stumbled upon this article. Regardless, here’s the DL: cities across the country are dumping recycling in landfills or, even worse, in incinerators.


WE KNOW. It’s crazy. Until recently, the majority of wealthy countries shipped their plastic to developing Asian countries (many of which didn’t actually have the infrastructure to manage the waste in the first place). China, however, took the brunt of it by importing nearly half of the world’s plastic waste and 55% of the world’s scrap paper. But, at the beginning of 2018, they decided they were done “being the world’s waste dump” and enforced their “National Sword” policy. The policy tightened restrictions on their importing program, which basically brought a halt to all recycling imports and thus threw recycling programs everywhere into turmoil. The US specifically exported 40% of their recycling to China and now cities across the country aren’t sure what to do.

Photo courtesy of  Rethink Disposable

Photo courtesy of Rethink Disposable

So, it’s China’s fault?

It’s easy to point fingers at China, but in reality, they didn’t have the infrastructure to manage or process all the recycling that was coming in. A lot of the plastic that was being sent to them was contaminated with stuff that made it difficult or expensive to recycle - like food waste and plastic wrap. These items ended up being discarded into their local land (like canyons and farmlands), landfills or being burnt. This resulted in massive pollution of land, water, and air for the local community. After a while, China got sick of it and said no more.


At first, we tried to send our plastic elsewhere but it didn’t take long for other Southeast Asian countries to stop accepting it. Now, cities across America basically have two choices: pay much higher rates to have recycling processed or throw it away. Sadly, most cities aren’t willing to pay the higher rates, so they’re picking the latter. Cities and towns everywhere are now dumping recyclables into landfills and incinerators, releasing toxins into our land, air, and water.

Photo courtesy of Wiqan Ang for  The New York Times

Photo courtesy of Wiqan Ang for The New York Times


Tbh, Americans suck at recycling and that’s the main reason it’s so hard for us to get it processed now. We tend to throw anything we can into those blue bins, (around 25% of what we recycle is “contaminated”) which then clogs up the recycling process. Recycling plants then have to hire workers to manually go through everything, but such an expense is too burdensome for most cities.


Unfortunately, the recycling-apocalypse is happening when we’re consuming more than ever. In 2015, Americans generated 262.4 MILLION TONS of waste - that’s about five pounds per person EVERY DAY. So what do we do? We can make a big difference by consuming less and being smart about the things we do buy. By purchasing products that are made and packaged in an eco-friendly way, we send a loud and clear message to brands that we expect them to be less wasteful and more responsible. And, in the meantime, there are a lot of small things we can do, like avoiding single-use plastics, being more conscious of what and how to recycle and re-using things as much as possible. Together, our small actions will add up and make a big difference.

What do you think of the current recycling situation? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!