Stop making these recycling mistakes now

The way you’re recycling could be causing more waste to go into landfills. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

By Samantha Erb

The way you’re recycling could actually be causing more waste to go into landfills. Read on to find out how you can prevent this.

In the United States, there’s a growing concern about the increase in packaging waste. Companies are focusing on products that are functional and aesthetic rather than ease of recycling, causing more recyclable materials to be thrown away.

This surge in packaging waste impacts environmental sustainability and puts extra stress on recycling systems, which are struggling to keep up with the volume. This challenge is compounded by consumers being confused about what they can and can’t recycle because of inconsistent labeling and non-standardized guidelines.

Taking a closer look at the dynamics of waste and recycling, particularly with food packaging, reveals that these complexities undermine the effectiveness of recycling programs.

Understanding recycling in America

Despite advances in technology and increased efforts to raise public awareness, Americans are struggling with how to recycle. While the United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that the recycling rate has increased from less than 7% in 1960 to 32% in 2024, household waste has risen by 230%, as reported by Statista.

Much of this issue stems from inconsistent recycling regulations across the country. Local policies are highly varied, creating a confusing patchwork of guidelines. Where some cities may accept all plastics and mixed materials, others have strict restrictions. This inconsistency not only confuses consumers but also impacts their desire to recycle, keeping recycling rates from rising. People need clear, consistent information and education.

Additionally, the increase in single-use plastic products, electronics, and packaging designed for convenience, puts further strain on recycling systems. Many recycling facilities are outdated, making it difficult for them to handle modern waste.

Deciphering food packaging dilemmas

The kitchen is at the center of recycling challenges because of issues with food contamination. Leftover bits of food, like meat or sauce, can attract pests and also spoil the recycling process by introducing organic matter, deteriorating the quality of the recycled materials.

According to Jason Loughlin, COO at Waste Trade, “If the level of food contamination is high, then a load can be rejected into a recycling facility, which in turn will be sent for incineration.” That means that if there is enough food contamination, then an entire load of recycling can be thrown out, resulting in massive amounts of recyclable materials ending up in landfills.

Also consider the variety of packaging used in a typical family meal. For example, a pork loin might come in a plastic tray that could be recyclable depending on its type of plastic. Hamburger patties, on the other hand, may be lined in a paper-plastic casing to prevent grease that, surprisingly to many, can’t be recycled.

Even more, condiments like buffalo sauce come in plastic or glass bottles, which need to be taken apart before they can be recycled. The overwhelming number of inconsistencies that consumers must learn can lead to frustration, reluctance to recycle, or even well-meaning mistakes in recycling.

The reality of misrecycling

Misrecycling is a widespread issue, with different regions in the United States showing different types of commonly misrecycled items. This highlights the need for tailored interventions and policy adjustments to address the unique needs across the country.

According to an article in the New York Times, studies in Northeast America have shown that disposable coffee cups are often wrongly placed in recycling bins. Many people don’t realize that polyethylene insulation makes them unsuitable for standard recycling processes. Similarly, in California, where people are typically more environmentally conscious, a staggering 57% of recycled waste is actually made up of non-recyclable products, as explained by an article in Governing.

These troubling statistics are part of a larger trend, with the National Waste and Recycling Association reporting a 250% increase in recycling contamination in the past decade. These regional snapshots emphasize the challenge that recycling plants face because of contamination and misrecycling.

The cost of recycling mistakes

When recycled products are contaminated, either with organic waste or misrecycled materials, it puts significant economic and operational pressure on local waste management systems. Municipalities have to spend extra labor and technology to sort and process these contaminated batches. This increases their operational costs by at least $300 million per year, as noted in The Recycling Partnership’s 2019 West Coast Contamination Initiative Research Report.

If contaminated batches cannot be rescued and need to be incinerated, the intended environmental benefits of recycling are lost. Transporting and processing the waste causes an increase in carbon emissions. As well, this financial burden often falls on municipalities, who may have to redirect funds from other essential services. This creates twice the economic impact, affecting the efficiency of recycling systems and the stability of local governments.

Advancing recycling through education and innovation

Though the situation may seem bleak, there is a wave of positive change as a number of organizations and individuals launch campaigns to fill the knowledge gaps around recycling. These efforts range from traditional methods like social media campaigns, community workshops and informative mailers, to more innovative approaches. States like Vermont have introduced intuitive symbols and stickers for recycling bins, along with school programs designed to cultivate good recycling habits from a young age.

Simultaneously, technological advancements are revolutionizing the capabilities of recycling centers. According to an article in Recycling Inside, artificial intelligence and machine learning is enhancing the speed and accuracy of waste sorting. More sophisticated technologies can even detect food contamination on containers, preventing the spoilage of entire batches and distinguishing between different types of plastic, thereby boosting the overall effectiveness of recycling operations.

Get involved!

Each person can help make an impact by educating themselves about sustainable waste management practices and making small changes.

Couglin suggests reducing the amount of wasted packaging by avoiding single-use items when possible. His ideas include using a reusable water bottle or coffee mug, using reusable storage containers for lunches and leftovers, buying produce not wrapped in plastic, and buying in bulk when possible.

Engaging with sustainable practices is also more than just disposing of waste correctly. It’s about joining a larger movement towards sustainability. This could mean participating in community recycling initiatives, engaging with educational programs to spread awareness and fostering responsible recycling habits. By understanding and addressing the complexities of recycling, everyone has the power to make a difference in combating the mounting challenge of packaging waste.

Samantha Erb is the owner of Everyday Family Cooking, a food website focused on providing simple meals with few ingredients that still pack on the flavor. She is also an air fryer expert and the writer behind the cookbook Delicious Air Fryer Recipes.