As a developed country, America’s recycling rate is not high, only around 34%. Most recycled materials should be cheaper than virgin commodities, but America throws too much stuff away. This waste comes at a cost. Making cans from recycled aluminum, the most valuable container material, requires 95% less energy and creates 90% less greenhouse-gas emissions than virgin stock, yet more than 40 billion aluminum cans hit America’s landfills every year. The country chucks away $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging annually, according to As You Sow, an advocacy group.
Part of the problem is that America’s approach to waste is a mess of incompatible local systems. Around 9,800 different municipal recycling plans operate around the country, and they all follow different rules. Most recycling facilities were built in the 1990s, and the recycling machinery is often ill-equipped to handle changes in the country’s waste stream, such as the decline in paper (newsprint has fallen by half since a 2000 peak) and the swift rise in plastics. Diverting recyclable materials from landfills can save some money; cities spent about $5 billion on landfill fees in 2013. But this requires big capital investments, which cash-strapped governments are often disinclined to make. As a result, a quarter of Americans lack access to proper bins for collecting recyclable material, and another quarter go without any curbside recycling at all.
It is also hard to increase the quantity of recycled goods without compromising quality. Many cities now give residents bigger bins and demand less sorting, but the often-contaminated results are a costly headache for recycling companies. “We get soiled diapers and dead animals on the line,” complains James Devlin of Recycling Community, which operates 35 recycling facilities in 13 states. One recycling bin ended up holding a six-foot shark.
This is particularly tough to improve the whole situation in America in short time. But some funds have waded into recycling field for another new try. Thirty-two states already force companies to handle discarded electronics, batteries, mobile phones and other products. With well-sorted scrap, what we need to do is using proper recycling machines to deal with them. When people get profit from scrap recycling, recycling business will be prosperous.