Recycling 101: Recent Trends, Guidelines, and Tips

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Learn how the COVID-19 pandemic affected recycling trends and better understand how to recycle properly and reduce waste. This guide provides beneficial information for seasoned recyclers and beginners alike.   

Recycling Experiences Setbacks During Pandemic

COVID-19 reached the United States over a year ago. In the early days of the pandemic, most of the country was in lockdown. Politicians and activists eagerly seized the opportunity to implement reform on single-use plastics. New laws were introduced to limit the usage of these plastics, most of which are not recyclable and contribute to climate change.

The United States Senate considered imposing restrictions on single-use plastics, while the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont – had already outlawed single-use plastic bags in retail stores. The first state to take this initiative, California, enacted legislation far before the pandemic, passing a ban in 2014. Hawaii followed suit when Honolulu joined other major counties in approving a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkouts. The remaining six states passed similar legislation in 2019.

Although over 95 single-use plastic bills introduced by state lawmakers in 2019, directly before the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown was still a major a catalyst in the decline of recycling efforts. The driving forces behind this are multifaceted. First, the pandemic caused increased usage of single-use plastics for personal protective gear. Safety concerns contributed to a 40% increase in demand for plastic food packaging, disposable plastic bags, and other products to avoid contamination. Secondly, because the pandemic caused a massive decrease in fuel demand, many oil companies began to rely on the consumption of plastic-based consumer goods and PPE (manufactured using natural gas) to make up for lost revenue.

“Over the next few decades, population and income growth are expected to create more demand for plastics, which help support safety, convenience and improved living standards,” ExxonMobil spokeswoman Sarah Nordin told Reuters.

Large companies like ExxonMobil are now navigating how to simultaneously meet increased demand for single-use plastics and invest in more environmentally sustainable products. While single-use plastics have certainly helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19, potentially saving thousands of lives, the increased demand for these non-recyclable items have stalled the adoption and expansion of recycling in American homes.

Aspirational Recycling & Misinformation

18-Gallon Curbside Recycling Bins

A 2019 Covanta Survey of 2,000 Americans found that 62% of respondents reported concern that they recycle improperly due to lack of knowledge. Additionally, the survey found that 41% of respondents struggle to afford eco-friendly products.  

“While done with good intentions, many Americans are practicing aspirational recycling—tossing things into recycling bins that they think should be recycled, rather than what can be recycled,” said Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer at Covanta, in a statement. “This practice has led to the contamination of recyclables and a crisis in the market.”

To combat “aspirational recycling,” Americans must have access to resources detailing local guidelines and rules. These can vary vastly by jurisdiction, so make sure to check what policies govern the recycling process in your region by visiting your local government’s website or by finding your state in this comprehensive list by Waste Dive.

To better understand hurdles the United States faces when it comes to effective recycling, we asked SSI SCHAEFER waste and recycling expert Mark Cerniglia to explain the situation in more detail.

"Over the years, recycling has been practiced with much effort and participation from communities across the United States with the thought that anything dry should or could go into the recycling cart. Communities often think that something should or could be recycled when it is actually not recyclable due to its Life Cycle Assessment, resulting in residue (waste) at the MRF.  This practice of depositing what is thought to be recyclable based on a wide or broad spectrum of recyclables collected by the municipality or hauling contractor actually degrades their commodity and creates more waste to be disposed of at the MRF - resulting in increased costs.

As of 2016 (and most recently 2018-2019 due to the China Sword), recycling in the US has now focused on more desired recyclables based on their marketability. This has now decreased the total types of recyclables or what we think should be recycled, concentrating more on the higher returned recyclables such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, tin, and plastics that are more desired based on their actual value.

Education is the key to the success of any diversion program whether it's food waste, organics/green waste, or recyclables.  This education starts at the schools and homes so we don’t pollute or contaminate our recyclables.  This practice increases profitable returns for the processors which are passed down to the consumer - keeping our disposal costs down."

Life Cycle Assessment refers to determining the overall impact of a product on the environment. Applicable in many industries, a life cycle assessment factors in the extraction of materials, production, and transportation. In recycling and waste,  life cycle assessments allow decision-makers to determine if certain materials are recyclable. For more resources on life cycle assessment, access this life cycle cost calculator

As the world slowly returns to pre-pandemic operations, there are plenty of changes individuals are making to minimize the use of non-recyclable materials and opt for more eco-friendly alternatives.

If you haven’t done so already, this may be the best place to start. Here’s a quick refresh on how to recycle properly.

Basic Recycling Guidelines

Despite varying policies based on location, there are general guidelines for recycling set by the EPA. The following list consists of items that are commonly recyclable:

  • Paper and Cardboard Boxes
    • According to the EPA, paper products comprise 23 percent of municipal solid waste (also known as trash) annually. While Americans recycled 68% of used paper in 2018, the United States still has a big opportunity area regarding repurposing paper products. Paper is generally recyclable, but double check what your region to clarify which types they accept in the recycling process.
 
  • Wrapping Paper and Gift Bags
    • Gift bags are placed in recycling bins with regularity, but that’s not always where they belong. Paper gift bags and wrapping paper without any lamination are free to be recycled. However, the shiny outer coating (typically laminated) on many gift bags and wrapping paper often deems them ineligible to be recycled. If possible, opt for gift bags made from recycled paper. Additionally, reuse bags and wrapping paper whenever possible to reduce waste.
 
  • Batteries
    • Surprisingly, many batteries are recyclable. Lead-acid batteries remain on of the most frequently recycled products in the US. However, lithium-ion, lithium metal, lead-acid, nickel cadmium, and other rechargeable batteries don’t belong in your residential recycling cart or bin. Disposing of these types of batteries are the cause of many fires in collection trucks and MRFs. These types of batteries must be dropped off at special drop-off locations or household hazardous waste collection areas.
 
  • Plastics
    • In 2018, only 7% of plastics were recycled in the United States. Granted, figuring out which plastics are recyclable can be confusing. Before recycling plastics, check with your community recycling program to find out what types they accept. Further, familiarize yourself with the symbols on plastic containers and bottles. These symbols are provided by plastic manufacturers to help consumer identify the type of resin used to produce the item. Although the manufacturer’s label often includes a triangle that looks like the recycling symbol, it does not mean the item is recyclable. To decode what these symbols mean, look at this diagram published by the EPA.
Image Courtesy of the United States EPA and ASTM International
  • Food and Beverage Cans
    • Food and beverage cans made from aluminum, tin, and steel are typically recyclable. As a bonus, you may also recycle empty aerosol cans – but make sure to rinse them out and remove any plastic pieces before tossing them in the recycling bin. Any food or additional particles left inside the containers deem them ineligible for recycling.
 
  • Glass
    • When recycling first started in the late 1980s, items were all separated, including glass. This is the ideal scenario for recycling glass because it keeps contamination and breakage separate from other materials. However, an increasing number of collection services are no longer accepting glass for curbside pickup. This doesn’t mean you can’t recycle glass, though. Many regions hold glass recycling events, offering locals the opportunity to drop off their glass bottles and containers. Check with your local recycling program to clarify expectations beforehand. If there are no avenues to recycle glass in your area, consider reusing jars to reduce waste.
 

So, what about items that should not be recycled? The following list summarizes items that most likely won’t be accepted in your recycling bin.

  • Bagged Recyclables
    • Many people choose to collect their recyclables in a trash bag. While it makes for easy pick up around the house, be sure to empty the recyclable items into your bin. Reuse your pickup bag, if possible
 
  • Single-Use Plastic Bags
    • Plastic retail bags are not recyclable. These plastic bags (the types that grocery stores give out) often get tangled in curbside pickup equipment. However, there are plenty of ways to reuse them around your house! Additionally, you may visit https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/ to search location that accept plastic bags as recyclables.
 
  • Plastic Wrap
    • Plastic films like plastic wrap or bubble wrap are not accepted for curbside pickup. Although they may not be eligible for conventional recycling, they can be reused in a variety of creative ways. Consider wrapping presents and fragile items with used bubble wrap for storage or moving.
 
  • Foam Containers
    • Takeout containers and cups made from polystyrene are made of non-recyclable materials, so you will need to toss them in your regular waste cart. This also includes packing peanuts (but some warehouses and shipping locations are happy to reuse peanuts when you are finished with them.) It’s best to purchase items that are not packed in these materials when possible. It’s best to purchase items that are not packed in these materials when possible. 
 

Common Recycling Myths

  • Myth 1: Recycling labels on products and containers are always accurate.
    • Truth: Local recycling guidelines often vary depending on region. Make sure to check recycling policies from your municipality before tossing a piece of plastic into a recycling cart. Often, plastics are unable to be repurposed into new product and should be disposed of in a waste cart.

 

  • Myth 2: Recyclables must be 100% rinsed and clean to be sorted properly.
    • Truth: While it is important to wash out your recyclable containers, they don’t need to be completely sanitized. Ensure that food particles, any sticky residue, and other contaminants are washed, then give it plenty of time to dry before putting in the recycling bin or cart. However, recyclables do not need to be completely spotless before putting them on the curb.

 

  • Myth 3: You cannot recycle crumpled cans.
    • Truth: You can crumple your soda cans as much as you’d like, especially for curbside pickup. They are going to get crushed at the recycling facility when they arrive either way. The only caveat to this rule is if you prefer to drop cans off at your local recycling facility. In this case, keeping them in-tact can help self-service recycling machines accept the cans more easily.

 

  • Myth 4: Sorting out recyclables from trash isn’t necessary. This happens at the facility either way.
    • Truth: When people place non-recyclables in the recycling cart for curbside pickup, it can cause many problems. Certain items like broken glass don’t belong with recyclables because they may damage machinery during the sorting process.

 

  • Myth 5: Products made from recycled materials are not good quality.
    • Truth: When recycling first started gaining attention as a method to combat climate change and a slew of other environmental issues, many people were suspicious of the quality of products made from recycled materials. Nowadays, products made from recycled materials are not only in demand, but of high quality. Modern technology allows companies to make products from recycled materials that rival alternatives made from new materials. Even SSI SCHAEFER utilizes post-consumer recycled material in a multitude of products.

SSI SCHAEFER Commits to a Sustainable Future

SSI SCHAEFER is continually focused on creating sustainable products and investing in the fight against climate change. Our recycling carts are made of HDPE (High Density Polyethylene), one of the most eco-friendly plastic solutions in manufacturing. HDPE is a Type 2 plastic and many products like SSI SCHAEFER recycling carts are made with post-consumer product material and 100% recyclable. Known for being lightweight, durable, and impact resistant, many HDPE containers are recyclable after use. Additionally, SSI SCHAEFER publicly committed to remaining a dedicated partner in the fight against climate change by joining the 50 Sustainability and Climate Leaders initiative. A response from the international business community, this program takes action to meet the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, advancing the development of sustainable and economical logistics solutions.

"SSI SCHAEFER is an ideal partner for companies that pursue economical, future-oriented, and sustainable goals. We have a broad portfolio of innovative products and solutions, which we combine together for specific needs of each customer."

Steffen Bersch, CEO of SSI SCHAEFER Group

Join SSI SCHAEFER in the effort to reduce waste, increase recycling, and protect the environment. Browse our recycling products below to learn more!

Additionally, get more information on sustainable efforts and products from SSI SCHAEFER by visiting the Sustainable Solutions page on ssi-schaefer.com

Recycling Products from SSI SCHAEFER:

Q SERIES WASTE AND RECYCLING CART

Q-Series Waste & Recycling Carts

The SSI SCHAEFER Q-Series line of recycling carts helps municipalities and haulers save money and the environment. With 793 waste carts per 53’ truckload, Q-Series waste and recycling carts minimize environmental footprints with more cargo per load. Additionally, these carts are made with HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) and are 100% recyclable.

M-Series Waste & Recycling Carts

The M-Series line from SSI SCHAEFER is used by millions of residences throughout the United States. Made with one-piece HDPE construction and featuring standard semi-automated tippers, customers can easily roll their carts to the curb for a no-sweat recycling routine.

Lauderdale County, AL waste carts
95B_GREEN_angle_up_2

B-Series Waste & Recycling Carts

The B-Series cart can be used with semi-automated tippers or fully automated grabbers. With versatility and HDPE durability, these recycling carts additionally feature an in-molded toe for easy tilting and easy recycling.

Curbside Recycling Bins

In addition to residential and commercial waste and recycling carts, SSI SCHAEFER also offers 18-Gallon curbside recycling bins. Simultaneously durable and lightweight, SSI SCHAEFER curbside recycling bins weigh in at only 4.3 lbs. and are made with a minimum of 35% recycled material.

18-Gallon Curbside Recycling Bins
4-yard front load 356C

Commercial Waste & Recycling Carts

Now more than ever, commercial businesses have a great opportunity to make a positive impact on reducing waste. With SSI SCHAEFER commercial waste and recycling carts, businesses can rely on manufacturing integrity and product durability.

Guaranteed to resist leakage, rust, and bottom replacement, SSI SCHAEFER commercial waste and recycling carts are not only suitable for recyclable materials, but also are ideal for food and organic waste collection. Featuring a tight seal for safe use in environmentally sensitive areas, these recycling carts come in a range of sizes and are 100% recyclable.

Interested in learning more about recycling products and services from SSI SCHAEFER?

SSI SCHAEFER is one of the most respected and innovative manufacturers and distributors of waste technology products in the world serving municipalities, government agencies, and private haulers.

Contact us to speak with a waste and recycling expert. For faster service, call 855-900-CART.

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