Skip to content

Recycling needs work to work

Climate change presents many challenges and concerns to the public, and many people wonder what steps they can take to be more environmentally conscious and what they can do to help the environment. 

One of those first steps to being more environmentally conscious is recycling, which is one of the easiest ways people can make a positive impact. Most Americans have access to a recycling program, and three in ten Americans say that their community strongly encourages it. 

The only problem with that is that there is a massive problem with how recycling works right now.  As of right now, recycling is not helping get rid of pollution as much as the public thinks it does. In fact, recycling is actually increasing the amount of waste people generate. 

Inconsistent icons and labeling for bins and packaging and different recycling laws lead to confusion and disorganization over what gets recycled, which facility it goes to and what does not end up getting recycled at all. Just because something has the recycle logo does not necessarily mean it is recyclable in a particular town or state. This confusion often leads to indifference or skepticism over recycling and causes many recyclable materials to go to landfills, incinerators and our waterways. 

Despite this, there is an ample supply of recycled materials to make products. However, due to low public purchase and interest for recycled products, there has been a decrease in demand for recycled materials, which has led to many recyclable materials being put in the trash. Also, much of what is taken to recycling facilities is rejected because of contamination, making it un-recyclable, contributing to pollution and littering. Single stream recycling––a system in which all recyclables like plastic, metal and paper are placed in a single bin or cart––also contributes to the contamination of what can be recycled. The result of single stream recycling is that an entire “bag” can get tossed into the garbage section. When the public misunderstands what can actually be recycled, millions of tons of garbage are put into recycling bins, which drives the cost of filtering and processing, further decreasing the quality and quantity of recycled materials.

Incinerator, landfill and petrochemical industries profit from this confusion and apathy over recycling because it causes the demand for recyclable materials to go down, the demand for virgin materials to go up, and trash to keep piling up.

Underdeveloped countries have to deal with materials piling up and polluting since they do not have the infrastructure to recycle materials. Instead of the curb-side pick-up many American neighborhoods are used to, some countries have “pickers” who are hired to pick up plastic and other recyclable materials to sell to businesses. However, because of a decrease in demand for reused materials, pickers are dealing with a loss of income, which leads to more waste going into oceans.

Since recycling is not regulated and protected, companies that greenwash their products also benefit from a lack of understanding of recycling and how it works. Greenwashing happens when a company or an entire industry presents claims to be environmentally friendly but only caters to a demand for more sustainable practices and has little to no intention to follow them. For example, despite H&M’s claim to be more environmentally friendly and make clothing from recycled materials, only 0.7 percent of all of the material used to make its garments a year is from recycled material. In fact, globally, 80 percent of discarded textiles are doomed for the landfill or incineration and only 20 percent are reused or recycled. 

However, this does not mean recycling is obsolete or ineffective. It just means it needs some serious work, and it can all start with a universal labeling system for products.

With a simplified, standardized labeling system, the companies that make the products, the people who buy them and the recycling centers they go to all know exactly where they belong. When everyone understands how to recycle and what rules to follow, recycling can become more economically viable and environmentally sustainable. However, realistically, recycling alone is still not enough to be sustainable.

The only way for recycling to be truly environmentally sustainable is to reduce the number of products we consume. Companies still have to generate new products to replace those that were recycled. Energy is also needed to power recycling plants and to produce products, even if those products came from recycled materials. The only way that recycling––even if done perfectly––can truly be environmentally sustainable is if people keep in mind the first “R” of the “RRRR” campaign: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. To reduce the amount of trash and pollution in the world, people must refuse to consume more than they need to.

Nevertheless, improving recycling is still an extremely important step forward in the right direction in circumventing the amount of waste making its way into waterways.

The International Waste Platform, Recycle Across America and Recycle Across the World are organizations calling for the UN to implement a treaty for a standardized, universal labeling and iconography system for packaging and recycling bins all around the world. Recycle Across America is also trying to pass the “Let’s Recycle Right” Bill, which proposes proven solutions to solve the costly contamination issues that the current recycling infrastructure presents.

As these organizations try to get recycling to become more streamlined and effective in tackling waste pollution, recycling is not the only way pollution is being tackled. Eyesea, a nonprofit organization, has built a data collection system that facilitates the tracking, analyzing and mapping of marine pollution. The idea behind the initiative is that, by knowing what marine pollution consists of and where it is, organizations, companies and individuals can be informed about where clean-up efforts can make the biggest impact. However, efforts by those trying to clean the oceans now will only go so far if there are still tons of garbage making their way into the oceans.

Much like when the UN standardized road signs worldwide for driving to be made simpler and safer in the Vienna Convention of 1968, a universal labeling system can make recycling simpler, more effective and even an economically viable industry.

People can easily understand what materials go where by using clear images and labels that separate recycling into clear and specific categories such as paper, plastic bottles, cans, and compost. Recyclable materials can increase in value, quality and demand just by putting recyclables into the proper containers.

A standardized labeling system could usher in extraordinary benefits in countries like Germany, Austria and South Korea, where recycling is already a common practice and there is an infrastructure for it. However, funding and investment in recycling facilities are still needed, especially in countries that lack recycling infrastructure or––like in the U.S.––only have it in some parts of the country.

Recycling can become what it’s supposed to be. By becoming more informed, urging investment in processing facilities and supporting legislation that would regulate and protect it, recycling can become a step in the right direction to keep emissions down and waste out of the oceans.

When recycling works, it benefits the entire maritime industry. It helps keep waste from going into landfills, incinerators and the oceans, reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. It has the potential to be a profitable and enduring industry that can inspire the maritime industry to look at ways they can follow and exceed sustainable practices. It has the potential to help the maritime industry answer its questions on how to deal with waste.

When recycling works, the thought of the industry––and global society––no longer turning to virgin plastics becomes a reality.

Subscribe by Email

Want updates on how NAMEPA is protecting marine environments and how you can get involved? Subscribe by email and follow us on social media.

Help #SaveOurSeas

Every donation counts. Your tax-deductible donation will help us protect the marine environment, support the marine industry, and educate communities to Save Our Seas.


Join NAMEPA to help us advocate preserving the marine environment by promoting marine industry best practices.

Back To Top