Why isn’t recyclable waste always recycled?

A plastic bag, a used pizza box, plastic cutlery, paper napkins and a can of soda: a single take-out meal is a bit like a recycling quiz.

What items can be recycled? What types of plastic should end up in household waste? What if the packaging is greasy?

Recycling can be tricky, especially since recycling regulations vary from one municipality to another. This may be one reason why only 32% of waste is recycled in the United States.

According to a report by Greenpeace, only 6% of plastic waste (from bottles to drips) produced in the United States in 2021 was recycled. Due to their design, some plastic items are very difficult to recycle and recycling plants struggle to find potential buyers for these materials.

This situation is problematic for the environment and health: all this plastic breaks down into microscopic pieces and contaminates absolutely everything around it, from the ocean to our bodies.

(Read: Phthalates would promote the development of uterine fibroids)

Things are looking up in terms of paper waste as 68% of it is recycled. Experts argue, however, that more needs to be done to improve recycling within homes and communities, including through voting.


Do you want to better differentiate your waste? Don’t let the numbered triangle of arrows printed on the plastic fool you. These triangles do not necessarily mean that the product is recyclable: it is a code that indicates which type of “plastic resin” this plastic is made of, among the seven existing types. Only some of these categories are currently recycled.

“Plastic is a real headache,” says Darby Hoover, a recycling expert at the US Natural Resources Defense Council. “When you make plastic packaging or an object, you add colorants and additives to change its properties such as stiffness or flexibility, depending on your needs. And these little additives affect its melting temperature and its ability to be recycled. »

The SPI coding system for resin identification was originally designed to facilitate the work of recycling plants. However, a 2019 study of 2,000 Americans found that 68% of participants saw these symbols as evidence of the recyclability of materials. These plastic symbols are so often misunderstood that the state of California recently passed a law restricting their use.

Experts stress the importance of knowing the types of plastic accepted by local sorting centers. However, in general, plastics marked with numbers 1 and 2 are more likely to be recycled. These are rigid plastics such as those contained in water or milk bottles and sorting centers have machines capable of cleaning, shredding and melting this type of plastic.

Type 5 plastics, found in some types of pharmaceutical containers or food packaging, have the potential to be recycled, but their acceptance by centers varies.

The other types of plastic (3, 4, 6 and 7) are more likely to end up in landfill than in a recycling bin: the affected products are bubble wrap, plastic bags and flexible food packaging.

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘ want to ride a bike”or throwing waste in the separate collection bin hoping it will be recyclable”, explains Hoover.

A complete waste of time, he says. This waste will at best end up in landfill, at worst it will jam the sorting center equipment and will have to be removed by hand, slowing down operations.

“These plastic bags wrap around the screens, so you have to cut them out. It’s a real scourge,” says Marti Matsch, assistant manager of Eco-Cycle, a recycling facility in Denver, Colorado.

Matsch explains that Eco-Cycle throws away on average almost 10% of recovered waste because residents sort through items that can’t be recycled, such as plastic bags or clothes.

(Read: We tested for you: a week without plastic bags and packaging)


To increase the chances of your waste being recycled, also remember to prevent your waste bin from becoming contaminated by food, dirt or chemicals.

Paper, for example, is easier to recycle when it’s clean. It can never be recycled if it comes into contact with even the slightest trace of food or mold from other waste in the recycling bin. This is why pizza boxes, often full of grease, end up in ordinary waste.

Municipalities generally provide their residents with a recycling guide. For example, the city of Paris indicates on its website how to separate its waste, the types of waste it accepts, as well as the location and opening hours of the collection organisations. In the United States, the city of Washington DC has put a database of the waste recycled by the city online, and the Recycling Partnership, an organization that seeks to improve the recycling system, offers a national database to help residents know what waste is being recycled in their common.


To offset the costs of collecting, sorting and recycling waste, municipalities can sell recycled materials, hence the need to find a buyer for these materials. However, demand varies which is why some municipalities do not accept all types of recyclable waste.

Recycling aluminum is profitable because this metal can be recycled over and over again without degrading, unlike for example plastic, which when recycled gives a lower quality material, used in the production of carpets or composite wood.

There is a very attractive market for Type 5 plastic in Colorado, Matsch explains, which is why Eco-Cycle agrees to recycle this resin.

However, recycling companies generally struggle to find buyers for their recycled plastic. The same additives and dyes that give plastic different shapes, textures and colors make it more difficult to produce a material that is attractive to buyers.

“It is very difficult to find buyers who want to give recycled plastic a second life because they are often looking for a simple composition, not a complex blend,” Matsch explains.

For decades, China remained the largest buyer of recycled plastic, importing millions of tons of plastic from the United States. However, it raised its plastics standards in 2017, leaving US recycling plants with no takers.

Some of the recycled materials have been shipped to other countries such as Indonesia or Mexico or ended up in landfills.

However, some companies, such as Target or Garnier for example, are increasingly committed to using recycled materials.


Environmental policy experts say one solution would be to implement a bottle deposit system. This is already the case in ten American states, where one can read on the label of some bottles a price that varies between 0.05 and 0.15 $ (0.046 and 0.14 euros). In France, the cabinet is gradually making a comeback locally.

The bottles themselves are assigned a fixed value thanks to this system, which encourages consumers to then deposit them in the lockers. A 2020 report indicates that states that have these guidelines produced half as much conventional waste as others.

Delivery sites are also available to collect plastic bags. Some stores have plastic bag delivery sites where the bags are more likely to stay clean and be taken to specialized recycling centers.

“It’s also essential to know the separate collection policies in place and support waste reduction efforts,” says Hoover. Many municipalities, such as the city of Strasbourg, are setting “zero waste” targets which require the adoption of more recycling strategies to avoid filling up landfills.

However, some environmental experts argue that it will take innovation and thinking beyond the yellow bins to truly stop the flow of plastic pollution pouring into the environment.

“The best thing to do in the interest of taxpayers is to produce less waste,” explains Judith Enck, former regional administrator and president of the environmental organization Beyond Plastics.

In recent years, some US states have passed laws making manufacturers responsible for the recyclability of their products. These laws vary in their approaches. Some require manufacturers to contribute financially to recycling facilities, and others require them to redesign their products so they’re easier to recycle.

One of the new approaches to recycling that Enck would like to see developed is the use of programs to wash and refill bottles and other packaging. She cites the example of beverage company Coca-Cola, which in one of its latest announcements pledged to refill or reuse a quarter of its glass and plastic bottles by 2030, an initiative it believes should adopt more plastic polluters. Enck also cites smaller-scale stocks, such as the American start-up Kadeya, which washes and refills bottles using a vending machine.

“It’s the future,” he says, “it’s what we need. »

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