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A Better Bin: A Campaign For Strengthening Residential Recycling Across the U.S.

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The Issue

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In the 1970s, Americans embraced recycling. Curbside residential programs developed across the country, an entire infrastructure was built to process materials, and there was an effort by brands to use recyclable material in products. Today, the passion for recycling is stronger than ever. As a result, society has benefited both environmentally and economically from recycling.

Unfortunately, along the way, confusion and inconsistency have developed along with recycling. Today’s residential recycling is not as efficient or effective as it could be if we all did our part to improve the materials in the blue bins that get recycled.

Here are a few examples of the issues facing residential recycling:

  • Inconsistent Recycling Programs: Every community has its own recycling program. The programs vary on everything from what is and is not accepted, how it is collected, and how it is processed. This creates an extreme amount of confusion for people.
  • Wish-Cycling: People want to feel like they are doing the right thing and when they are unsure if something is recyclable, they put it in the bin. In the end, if the item is not recyclable, it has to be separated out, and can in some cases contaminate the recyclables.
  • Greenwashing: Sustainability sells. Brands want to attract buyers by advertising products, especially packaging, as recyclable, including using labels on the products identifying them as recyclable. They may indeed be recyclable, but not through a residential recycling program. Consumers see the label however, and place them in the bin.
  • One-Bin Collection: When curbside recycling first began, in most communities households had to separate paper, cans, and other recyclables from each other before putting them at the curb. As budgets became tight in local communities, many opted to commingle all recyclables together for sorting later. Some communities have even started having residents combine recyclables with trash into one bin. The more sorting that has to be done on the backend means the more likely the recyclables are contaminated and devalued. This is especially true with paper.

How You Can Achieve a Better Bin

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Individuals have a very important role to play in improving residential recycling. The process starts the moment a person decides to place an item in the bin. Here are a few simple steps to help:

  • Check with your local government, department of environmental quality, department of public works, or residential collection company to find out what is and is not recyclable in your community, and follow those guidelines.
  • Rinse out food containers before putting them in the recycling bin.
  • Properly sort materials based on procedures set up in your community.
  • Take recyclable materials not picked up at curbside to designated collection sites for recycling.
  • And when you are in the store, look for products and packaging with recycled content and that can be recycled. You can make a difference by creating demand for products made with recycled materials.
  • Keep plastic bags out of your curbside bin! Plastic bags can break the recycling equipment used to sort the material by jamming up the gears of the conveyor belt. Take all your plastic bags back to a retail store that accepts them.

What Local Communities Can Do to Make a Better Bin

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Local communities play an important and necessary role as they often set the collection policies and procedures and interact directly with the recycling industry. A few things local communities can do include:

  • Work with the recycling industry to become more familiar with the scope of materials in demand and how to ensure materials meet the needs of buyers, including through the use of the ISRI Scrap Specifications Circular.
  • Increase public education and awareness to improve household efforts to separate trash from recyclables, including clear guidance on what can be recycled, how to clean food containers, the importance of keeping paper dry, and other efforts.
  • Invest in capital improvements at sorting facilities to minimize cross-contamination, enhance sorting, and prepare shipments according to market requirements.

How the Recycling Industry is Working to Create a Better Bin

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The recycling industry also has an important role to play by: 

  • Investing in infrastructure to better sort materials.
  • Working closely with communities so they understand the items that can be recycled properly.
  • Engaging with brands and product designers so they understand better what is and is not recyclable and encouraging them to design accordingly.
  • Engaging with Manufacturers to not only Design for Recycling™, but to also manufacture more products using recyclables.Increasing demand for what is put in the bin will help drive greater recycling.

Start today, and make a better bin!

Recycling Industry Impact

Additional Resources

Earth911

Recycle Across America (uniform labels)

Recycling Partnership (community solutions)

Call2Recycle (for household batteries)

Plastic Film Recycling

Reduce, Reuse Recycle (EPA resource)

Have Questions?

Jonathan Levy
Director, Member Services
JonathanLevy@isri.org
(202) 662-8530