November 15 is America Recycles Day

America Recycles Day is just around the corner again! Beginning in 1994, the day has been celebrated every year on November 15th, which falls on a Tuesday this year. It was created to celebrate recycling and to remind us all just how important it is to recycle. 

By John Fish, Community Recycling Center Manager + Litter and Green Events Program Associate

If you’ve been paying attention to the news the last several years, though, you might be wondering what there is to celebrate. There have been numerous stories about a crisis in recycling after the Chinese government imposed strict contamination limits on imports of materials to be recycled at the beginning of 2018. These stories have resulted in some people questioning not only whether it’s worth recycling but whether the materials that are collected were being recycled at all.

It’s important to keep these stories in perspective, however. Yes, there has been a crisis in recycling, and that has led some communities to either change which materials are accepted for recycling or to stop recycling altogether. But the crisis has in a very real sense done us a favor by revealing that many of us hadn’t been doing a good job of recycling.

What the Chinese government imposed, after all, were strict limits on how much contamination could be in the recyclables, not outright bans, and they did so because the US and other Western countries had been exporting material that was too dirty or low-quality to bother with recycling. It was being shipped to China in order to be recycled, but much of it wasn’t actually being recycled because it was, basically, trash.

It’s also important to recognize that most of the problems with recycling have to do with plastics, which have always been a tremendous challenge to recycle because that single word encompasses a huge array of different plastic resins.

The #s 1-6 in the ‘chasing arrows’ triangles stamped into almost everything made of plastic these days identify the six plastic resins most commonly used for the products people buy, but there are thousands of plastic resins. All of the rest are encompassed by the #7 Other symbol.

A volunteer helps sort recyclable materials at one of the KCMO Community Recycling Centers, operated by Bridging The Gap.

The different plastic resins collected are separated for recycling, and separating them is difficult and costly. Even different types of the same plastic resin need to be recycled separately. For example, #1 PET water bottles really need to be recycled separately from #1 PET clamshells.

Moreover, those numbers only identify which resin the item was made from – they don’t signify that the item will be accepted for recycling where you live, which depends on multiple factors.

One problem is that plastics come in a dizzying array of different shapes and sizes, and one form of, say, #2 HDPE plastic, like a milk jug, can be readily processed at Materials Recycling Facilities while a #2 HDPE toy or chair cannot.

There are other complicating factors, too, including pigments used to color plastics, which can make them less valuable for recycling or even not recyclable at all. 

While the myriad resins, types and forms of plastics make recycling them difficult, it’s all-too-cheap to make first-use plastics because the true costs in pollution from extracting, transporting and refining petroleum aren’t fully accounted for by the prices of the plastics made from it. In economics terms, those pollution costs are largely externalized onto society and the rest of the world.

Despite all these challenges, recycling is necessary, and it always will be necessary because that’s the way the living world works. Waste from one process has to become feedstock for another process, because if too much of it builds up, it becomes pollution and causes harm. 

We are part of the living world, and so we need to learn to work with the system, not go on cutting down trees and extracting minerals and petroleum to make things and then burying or burning the waste as if there are no limits to how much we can consume.

So the way to mark America Recycles Day is to recommit to carefully following the guidelines provided by your recycling provider, and only put items into the bin that are definitely being accepted. There has been a phenomenon in recycling called wishcycling, which refers to people putting things into their recycling bins in hopes they’ll be recycled rather than verifying that the materials are accepted before putting them in.

Wishcycling has greatly undermined recycling, and we all need to work together to end it. The rule to follow for recycling is always, ‘when in doubt, leave it out.’   

If you’re a patron of a Community Recycling Center managed by Bridging The Gap, you can find the broad descriptions of what we accept here, and we have more detailed fliers available at the centers. Be sure to read and follow the guidelines on all signs posted at the centers, as well.

Several years ago, the Mid-America Regional Council created the “Recycle More, Recycle Better” flier with guidelines for curbside recycling in metro-KC.

They also maintain the website, where you can search for options to recycle items that are not accepted for recycling in curbside or other mixed recycling bins.

Recycling is near and dear to our hearts at Bridging The Gap because managing drop-off recycling centers was how we got our start more than thirty years ago now.

So, on America Recycles Day 2022, we call on everyone to recommit to recycling correctly.