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There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to residential recycling programs. What can go in? What can‘t? Who’s taking our recycling? What are we accomplishing: Are we saving money, the planet?

Where Did We Go Wrong on Recycling? What Can We Change?

photo of Andrew Meyer
The author performs his weekly duty of dragging the recycling can to the curb.

Where do all our recyclables go after sorting?

How clean should they be before they go into the bin?

Is recycling profitable at all?

Does my recycling really get recycled?

That’s just a small sampling of the questions we got from our listeners when we asked you for ideas for our next series. An overwhelming majority of you told us that you wanted to know more about recycling. Time and again, those questions pointed to a state of confusion.

Is it supposed to be this confusing?
It wasn’t that long ago that recycling required much more work on all our parts. After all, if you were lucky enough to have curbside pickup of your recycling, every category of recycled material had to go in its own bucket. Glass in one container, cans in another… and do you remember tying up bundles of newspapers and cardboard?  All of that had to be lugged to the curb for pickup?

Then came single stream. Everything in one place. It was like the clouds had parted and a shaft of sunlight was shining down on one single recycling can. We could put all our recycling in one container, wheel it to the curb and let someone else do the dirty work.

It felt good. We were reducing the amount of material ending up in landfills and decreasing the amount of money our cities and towns were spending to put everything in the proverbial dump.

Finally, there was the feel-good aspect that we were each doing our part to save the planet in the process!

But single stream has proven to be a false prophet.

A complicated relationship
As you told us, it’s not as simple as throwing everything in one bucket.

It seems there is no one right way to recycle in Ohio. Every place does it slightly differently. Then there’s the problem of contamination from single stream recycling:

  • Not properly rinsing out cans and bottles
  • Throwing out grease-soaked pizza boxes
  • Including plastics that aren’t recyclable
  • Aspirational recycling (throwing something in the recycling bin you believe should be recyclable, regardless of what it is)

Not our problem?
For a while the issues with a recycling stream that wasn’t quite up to snuff was someone else’s problem.

However, a few years back, China dropped the boom us. The country is… or was… a big receiver of a lot of our recycling. In 2017, China banned 24 types of solid waste it used to import including a lot of recycleables. The problem they cited: contamination.

That left us holding the bag… of recycling, that is. Some places, like Richmond Heights, have discontinued their recycling programs. In others, the recycling that’s collected separately, simply ends up in the landfill with the rest of our garbage.

Still confused? 

One of the goals of our reporting is to help you better understand the process. We’ll take a look at what’s not working, the path that recycling takes once it leaves your hands, the challenges that face areas that don’t, won’t or can’t provide curbside recycling, one area that is working and ideas that are being tried out elsewhere in the country that could provide some solutions here.

And for helping you with the here and now of recycling do’s and don’ts where you live, we’re creating an interactive online guide. We have discovered that there’s currently not a one-stop repository of information. Our goal is to clear the confusion, to give you the tools, the information and the contacts you need. In Reduce, Reuse, Refocus, we want to help you understand what’s been so confusing and give you the tools to be a better recycler yourself.

Andrew Meyer is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.