Recycle, Reduce, Reuse

Americans Confused About Recycling

Amelia Nielson-Stowell Sep 12, 2019

The average person throws away 4.5 pounds of trash a day. That adds up in Utah’s Trans-Jordan landfill, which will fill in the next 12 years and means waste will need to be transferred to a new location. A major roadblock in reducing waste is that people don’t know how to recycle.

A new survey found 62% of Americans worry their “lack of knowledge is causing them to recycle incorrectly.” Most Americans think pizza boxes and plastic utensils can be recycled, and they throw away recyclables five times a week.

“Recycling is the No. 1 action that humans can take to improve our existence on this planet,” says Jennifer Farrell, education and outreach lead at Salt Lake’s Waste and Recycling Division.

With China banning U.S. recyclables that were previously shipped overseas, recycling has become a difficult process for municipalities collecting the waste, too. “It’s right to be worried, it’s a big issue. But I’m optimistic. We’re focusing more on sustainability and understanding we recycle to conserve resources and reduce waste,” Farrell says.

boy peering into a trash bin

Beyond the Recycling Bin

Roughly 15-30% of what Utahns put in their recycling bins can’t be recycled. Recycling processors don’t accept Styrofoam, Saran wrap, plastic bags, plastic straws or plastic utensils. They jam sorting machines and have no monetary value to recyclers.

“We need to think about how we use these products in the first place,” Farrell says.

Farrell leads a team of six that drive ahead of Salt Lake City’s recycling trucks and check residents’ blue recycling bins for “contaminants” — material that can’t be recycled. They then talk to the resident, help them clean out their bin and educate them on what can be recycled. These “blue bin” audits cut down contaminants in the recycling stream, which is critical as recycling regulations radically change nationwide.

Changing Recycling Industry

As the main processor of global goods, China accepted 70% of the world’s plastic waste for years — 700,000 tons annually from just the U.S. But much of that was full of illegal contaminants, like plastic film or dirty yogurt containers. That extra pollution ended up in China’s streets, farmlands and waterways. Because of environmental concerns, China stopped accepting recyclables in 2018, leaving many municipalities scrambling for alternatives.

In the U.S., No. 1-2 plastics (water bottles and milk jugs) are the only plastics consistently recyclable with local sorters. There are few places domestically that recycle lower grade No. 3-7 plastics (cottage cheese containers and to-go cups).

“Even if a city collects No. 3-7, there’s not even a guarantee they’ll find a market,” says Jill Fletcher, Trans-Jordan community and outreach coordinator.

Boise City ships residents’ No. 3-7 plastics to Renewology, a Salt Lake Company that melts the plastics into liquid fuel. Ten tons of plastic can be turned into 2,500 gallons of fuel.

Salt Lake ships their No. 3-7 plastics to Croydon, where a cement kiln burns them and the leftover ash is put into cement.

Jackson Hole, Moab and Park City have banned plastic bags. The Trans-Jordan landfill spends $40,000-$50,000 a year controlling plastic bags and installed a high fence for the sole purpose of catching them.

Stop Buying Trash

“We need to shop smarter,” says Andre Finlinson, a certified master recycler and former board member of the Utah Recycling Alliance. “Make sure the waste we do have to buy is truly recyclable.”

Finlinson offers small but critical steps to recycle:

  • Read the recycling rules on your city’s trash haulers’ websites.
  • Rinse out recyclables, like plastic containers and soda cans.
  • Stop buying single-serve food items like small, individual chip bags or juice boxes.
  • Pack lunch or snacks in steel or glass containers. 
  • Use reusable shopping bags.

“We’re seeing an increase of recycling being buried in the landfill,” Fletcher says. “Garbage is never gone — it leaves your house, but it doesn’t disappear from earth.”

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