Is what we're recycling actually getting recycled?

How do you know whether your recyclables are actually being recycled rather than being dumped at a landfill like this one in Canterbury, U.K.? See more landfill images.
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As the waste collectors cart your recyclables away, you’re suddenly hit by some terrible questions: Where do those materials go once they're picked up? Will they will actually be recycled? How do you know they’re not just going to end up in a landfill?

The movement to urge Americans to recycle the products they use rather than simply toss them in the garbage has been one of the most successful public relations campaigns ever launched in the country. In 1973, University City, Mo., was the first city to begin a curbside recycling program for newspaper collection. By 2006, there were around 8,660 curbside recycling programs across the United States [source: EPA].


At first, people had to separate their recycling. Plastics went in one bin, glass in another, paper in a third. But with the introduction of single-stream collection, people can put all of their recyclables in one place. With such a radical shift from deliberate sorting to a hodge-podge method, it appeared that recycling collection companies were confirming a skeptic's subtle fear: Our recyclables aren’t actually being recycled. What’s worse, the companies seemed to have stopped even trying to keep up appearances.

But this change to single-stream collection is the result of a change in technology. Better equipment was developed that sorts through our recyclables for us. Magnets and electric currents separate different metals, while infrared lasers sort different kinds of paper and plastic containers from one another, based on the light wavelength each type of material emits.

Unless you follow your recyclables through the entire process until they're made into new products, it’s impossible to say for certain whether your materials are actually being recycled. But, logically, the reason you can feel assured that most of your recyclables actually get recycled is because they have a dollar value.

Recyclables are considered a commodity -- a good that can be sold. Those cans, bottles and boxes you recycle can be broken down into raw materials again and sold to manufacturers. And since consumers like products made from recycled materials, manufacturers buy more recycled materials for their products. This means the prices for these commodities increases, which means recycling programs remain feasible.

So recyclables are valuable. Trash, on the other hand, is not. In fact, waste companies are generally charged fees for the right to dump their waste collections at landfills. And really the only difference between trash and recyclables is what happens after they’re picked up. So ultimately, it would be a terrible business model for a waste management company to pick up your recyclables and simply dump them in a landfill.

This is not to say that everything you put in your recycling bin actually does get recycled. And there have been some very high-profile cases of recycling fraud. Learn more on the next page.



Sorting Recycled Material

Workers at the Norcal Waste recycling plant sort through materials. The small pieces mixed in will most likely end up as residual.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Since your recyclables will eventually be sold to manufacturers, they must meet certain standards. They can’t have too many impurities, since recycled materials compete with virgin materials for use in manufacturing. So the cleaner the materials you return, the more likely it is they will be recycled.

The Minnesota Recycling Program says this means that a pizza box covered in grease and cheese you toss in your recycling bin will end up in a landfill. So, too, will tiny pieces of broken glass, especially when the pieces are different colors (called mixed-glass cullet). And many recycling programs won't take some products that are very difficult to recycle. Chief among them is PVC. This kind of plastic (which can be identified by the 3 inside the recycling symbol these products bear) contains too many additives to be recycled in most cases, since these additives can affect the purity of a batch of recycled plastic.


The remnants of the materials that can’t be recycled is called residual. The less residual a recycling plant allows, the more money it makes, since residual is simply thrown away at a cost to the recycling outfit.

Because of its unparalleled economic growth, China has become the world’s largest importer of recycled raw materials. Many of the used items you put on your curb make their way to China; in 2004, China imported $3.1 billion worth of the United States’ scrap materials [source: USC]. But not everything that ends up in China can be used.

Because China began buying old printer cartridges in the early 21st century, the cartridges went suddenly from trash to treasure. As a result, stores began accepting used cartridges and consumers began bringing them in.

But the most valuable part of the ink cartridge, it turns out, is the ink. After removing the last little drops from cartridges, the ink can be repackaged and sold. The cartridges are simply discarded, causing landfills in China to fill with empty plastic printer cartridges. What’s worse, an investigation found that in Guiyu, China, dumping or burning of these cartridges resulted in the local drinking supply becoming tainted with 200 times the acceptable levels of acid and 2,400 times the acceptable levels of lead [source: International ITC].

There have been plenty of other cases of recycling fraud that have come to light since the recycling movement began. In New Hampshire in 2002, a man was charged with fraud after his fluorescent light bulb recycling firm was found to lack the capability to actually recycle the bulbs. The firm had charged school districts and agencies in several states to accept their light bulbs for recycling. Fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury -- a toxic substance -- but rather than recycle the bulbs, the company stored them in abandoned buildings around the state [source: EPA].

And in Illinois, a company that specialized in recycling toxic waste was found to have illegally stored plenty of it in abandoned buildings in poor areas of Chicago. What’s more, the company actually marked some toxic waste as harmless and sent it to landfills where it was dumped [source: National Post].

But despite stories like this and criticisms of recycling -- that it may actually be environmentally harmful or that it’s financially unsound -- Americans appear to prefer sending their waste off to recycling plants than to dumps or to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

For more information on recycling and other related topics, visit the next page.


Recycling FAQs

What does recycling mean?
The process of recycling collects and processes materials that are reusable and turns them into a different form. These materials would otherwise have been thrown away as trash and burned at landfills.
What goes in the recycle bin?
Some of the most common items that can be tossed into the recycle bin include cardboard boxes, paper, glass and plastic bottles, and steel and aluminium cans.
How does recycling benefit the environment?
Recycling benefits the environment greatly since there are fewer items that make their way to landfills. Recycling makes it easier to reuse materials for other purposes once they have been thrown away.
How does recycling benefit humans?
Recycling has amazing benefits for humans since it reduces the amount of greenhouse gases that is produced by landfills. These gases are not only harmful to the environment but also to human health. Recycling uses safe and environmentally-friendly processes to reuse materials once they are thrown away.
What is the definition of recyclable?
When a wrapper, box or container is called recyclable, it means it can be recycled. But municipalities don't always accept everything labeled "recyclable" for recycling. Find out what your city accepts before putting it into the recycling bin. For instance, in some cities, glass is not accepted for recycling from the curb and needs to be taken to a special place for recycling.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Boswell, Randy. “Canadian sought in Illinois toxic sludge recycling scam.” CanWest News Service. May 7, 2007.
  • Goldstein, Joshua. “China’s international recycling trade.” University of Southern California. August 29, 2007.
  • Judge, Tricia. “Exposing the fraud: Recycling programs gone wrong.” International Imaging Technology Council.
  • Sheffield, Deanna. “Rubbish.” Orlando Weekly. December 6, 2007.
  • “New Hampshire man pleads guilty to recycling fraud.” U.S. EPA. February 1, 2002.!OpenDocument
  • “Recycling.” U.S. EPA. January 2, 2008.
  • “The common questions of the curmudgeon.” Minnesota Recycling Program.
  • “The truth about recycling.” The Economist. June 7, 2007.