Recycling gets complicated

By Amanda Kuhnert

On a recent trip to Europe, I felt like a cavewoman entering the modern world. As I struggled to learn the recycling codes in my host country, I scratched my head, wondering, “How could we Americans be so far behind when it comes to recycling?”

The U.S. recycles about 31 percent of its waste, compared to 66 percent in Germany and over 50 percent in other parts of Europe. These countries are making significant strides on both ends of the recycling movement: to reduce the amount of waste produced and to recycle existing waste through a complicated sorting program.

Spend five minutes in parts of western Europe and you’ll realize that the five Rs— refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle—are ingrained in the culture.


SUBHED: Sorting and recycling

When we checked in to our rental home in northern Italy, a bulky welcome packet was waiting for us. Two pages listed “things to do” in the area. The remaining 15 pages detailed the recycling program. It took a houseful of college-educated adults a full week to begin to understand the system. (I wonder if they might offer a course for locals.)

Every household has five different color-coded bins for different kinds of waste: paper, glass, packaging, compost, and trash. Every day a different bin is collected. If you mistakenly place an item in the wrong-colored bin, or mixed items together (like compost in the trash bin or a plastic bottle in the glass bin), the waste collectors will skip right over you. This is great incentive for getting it right.

We rarely saw a stand-alone garbage can. Everywhere we went, from gas stations to mountain huts, they were accompanied by recycling and compost bins. In Germany they really get specific, providing separate recycling bins for each color of glass.

All of the sorting makes sense; mixed recyclables are harder to sell. Countries that properly sort their recyclables have an easier time finding a buyer for their waste than countries, like the U.S., that throw everything into one bin, a practice known as single-stream recycling.

SUBHED: It’s not enough

But today, even conscientious sorters are having a difficult time selling their waste. For years Europe and the U.S. shipped much of our recyclables to China. The country’s recent ban on foreign trash has made one thing painfully clear: We’re all producing too much garbage.

According to the EPA, Americans export about 22 million tons of material every year (a third of our total recycled material). Plastic bags and wrap are the worst culprits. The EPA reports that Americans use 380 billion plastic bags and wrap annually. We have to do something.

In parts of Europe, plastic bags have been under siege, through the introduction of fees, for over a decade. During our travels we found that cashiers may begrudgingly hand you a biodegradable plastic bag if you show up unprepared. But most of them watched us struggle to hand-carry our items without an ounce of sympathy. There, environmental considerations take precedence over service and convenience.

SUBHED: The real problem

Recycling has never been the stand-alone answer to our environmental problem. Only 9 percent of all plastics produced globally gets recycled. Why? Because recycling is complicated and difficult, due to the wide range of additives and blends used in plastic products.

Now that China has closed its doors to foreign garbage, we’re forced to confront the real issue: overuse of plastic.

What can be done? Creating incentive for companies to decrease waste production is one tactic. Germany’s Green Dot system, which has been around since 1991, is an interesting model. The program has reduced the country’s garbage by about 1 million tons. Manufacturers and retailers pay for a “Green Dot” on products; the more packaging, the higher the fee.

The European Commission plans to propose a tax on plastic bags and packaging, and is working to make all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. They’re also considering a tax on virgin plastics so that companies are incentivized to use recycled plastics.

The bottom line? Recycling simply isn’t enough. We have to start producing less and reusing what we already have.


DO ONE THING: Say “no” to plastic bags and wrap.




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