If you pay close attention to recycling, you’ve probably noticed that what’s accepted one place is not necessarily accepted in the next town over. For example, in the RethinkWaste service area (Burlingame to East Palo Alto) we do NOT accept plastic bags in the recycling, while in San Francisco they do.
It may be easier for residents if recycling was standardized, but there are reasons why it’s not the same everywhere. Two of the main reasons for the variation in recycling are: markets and community differences.
Markets dictate what can and cannot be recycled. When you put something into your blue recycling cart, there are multiple steps in the process before an item can actually get recycled. First, recyclables head to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). While at the MRF, all recyclables are separated by material type (i.e. glass, metal, cardboard, paper, etc..). After being separated, each individual material is marketed and sold to different companies, both domestically and internationally. It’s at these facilities that recycling actually occurs, and items are transformed into something new and useful.
Without a destination (or an end market) where materials can be made into something new, “recyclables” wouldn’t be actually “recycled.” Markets are dependent on many factors including location, time, and material type, just to name a few. Markets change from location to location because manufacturing companies have put factories in different places. For example, if there are several paper mills in Arizona, but none in Michigan, it’s going to be much more difficult for MRFs in Michigan to find a market for their paper.
Markets also change over time and can have larger global shifts, such as China’s National Sword policy, which has had a major impact on the recycling industry. Additionally, some materials simply have more stable markets than others. For example, plastics #1 and #2 (water bottles, laundry detergent containers, etc.) tend to have very consistent markets, while other plastics have more unstable markets meaning they may not get recycled. Plastic #1 & #2 have a variety of markets and can be made into carpet, clothing, rope, construction materials, toys, recycling bins, and of course bottles. These variations in markets make it difficult to accept the same materials for recycling everywhere.
In addition to markets, community differences also contribute to the variation we see in recycling.
Everything that makes our communities distinct can also have an impact on the waste system that develops. One major factor that must be considered is the size of the community. For smaller, more rural communities there can be serious barriers hindering a recycling program. While larger, more urban communities tend to have more robust recycling systems. With a smaller community comes a less dense population making curbside recycling less fiscally sound. Typically smaller, rural communities rely on recycling drop off, which usually results in lower participation rates.
Along with less funding, is a lack of local markets. Typically, rural communities are further away from markets and transportation can be an expensive barrier for the community. Trucking costs vary by weight, the heavier the material the more costly it will be to transport. Where it may be possible to truck plastic 400 miles to be recycled, it might not be the same for glass, which is much heavier.
In addition to funding and markets, communities may also focus on different priorities. In the RethinkWaste area (and greater Bay Area), many believe that environmental protection should be a top priority, but that does not always hold true for the rest of the nation. These differences in population size, funding, and values play a large role in if items can be recycled.
What does this mean for you?
Now you know that recycling is not always equal. Whenever you travel or relocate, be sure to look for your local recycling guides (you can find ours here). Don’t be afraid to seek help or ask questions and reach out to local organizations if you are confused about what goes where.
Remember, recycling may not always be easy, but it is always worth it!