Recycling 101

Everything You Need to Know About U.S. Recycling

We all know the three R’s by now, right? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

* Correction, FOUR R’s – Thank, Ilana.

I’d love to dedicate an entire post to Rihanna, and I can’t guarantee I won’t talk about her later… but let’s get straight to the point.

There’s a reason “recycle” is the third of the four R’s. Frankly, it’s the least effective.

Reducing your consumption of new materials by living in a more minimalistic fashion and/or buying second-hand is the #1 priority.

Second up is finding new uses for items you already possess by scrolling through DIY upcycling projects. It’s an earth-approved excuse for spending way too much time on Pinterest. Yes, Apple, I know I spent 25% more time on social networking today but I’m trying to save the planet! 

However, if all else fails and you need to part ways with that glass jar you couldn’t get the glue off of or the aluminum can that was just too small to grow herbs in… it’s time for the dreaded third R…


The bad news

  • U.S. recycling levels are currently at 21.4%
  • Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour
  • The U.S. generates more waste than any other country

The good news

If U.S. recycling levels reach 75% – 
  • It would be equivalent to removing 55 million cars from the roads
  • It could create 1.5 million new jobs
  • Improved recycling would save water, forest, and mining resources as well as prevent further plastic pollution in our oceans

Don’t make me insert a video of that sea turtle with the plastic straw in its nose. It breaks my heart too.

* Recycling Facts Source

So, why are we stuck at 21%?

South Korea is recycling at 83%, Germany and Austria are recycling at around 63%, so what’s going on in the U.S.? There are 3 factors that contribute the most to America’s seeming inability to recycle properly:

  1. Effort
  2. Locality
  3. Exportation

Each of these 3 factors is a stand-alone issue but a combination of policy, individual action, and corporate responsibility is needed to reach that 75% goal. So let’s get into it –


This is really the look I throw when I see someone walk over to dispose of their plastic water bottle, acknowledge the recycling option, and then chuck it in the garbage instead.

And what’s most infuriating is that it’s not a rare occurrence. I guarantee each and every one of us has seen this exact same thing happen.

Let’s face it, some people are just lazy and unwilling to wash out their plastics or even walk the extra foot to the public recycling bin.

Here’s the thing: there is no law in the U.S. that nationally mandates recycling.

So really, those people aren’t breaking any rules, and while some are being negligent, others may not think what they’re doing is actually harmful. They may think –

What’s the point? It’s all going to the landfill anyway.

Ever hear this gem? I wish I could say it was totally bogus… and in large part, it is. But if you’re not familiar with your municipal recycling policies, even those of us who try to recycle may unintentionally be sending items to the landfill. That brings me to my next point:


Remember when I said there’s no law mandating recycling at the national level?

That’s because waste management is mostly left up to your municipal and state government to decide, so it’s different for everyone.

There are some U.S. cities who are absolutely crushing it:

  • Seattle implemented mandatory recycling laws that could fine uncompliant citizens.
  • Vermont banned recyclable materials, food, yard waste, and wood from their landfills.
  • San Francisco has been composting since the 1980s.

However, these places are the exception, not the rule.

For example, I live in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a single-stream recycling system as do the majority of US cities. That means we get to throw all our recyclables into one bin. Hooray for convenience!

But it’s not so simple, lot’s of items people typically think are recyclable, actually aren’t accepted.

Pittsburgh’s list of unacceptable items includes:

Coffee cups, shredded paper, used pizza boxes, paper plates, bottle caps and metal lids, aluminum foil, clamshell take-out containers, yogurt containers, Keurig cups, coffee cup lids, plastic lids, pyrex, and glass dinnerware

So basically, if you buy a coffee in this city and forget your reusable mug, every bit of that to-go cup is to go straight into the landfill. 

The scariest part is, If you slip-up in one way or another and accidentally throw a yogurt container into the rest of your recycling, you may contaminate the entire batch. That means your glass, aluminum, and paper all get sent to the landfill because you forgot your city has some kind of grudge against Yoplait.

Seems like a pretty garbage system for recycling doesn’t it?

Well, it used to work… sort of.


You may remember seeing headlines about a recycling crisis in the U.S. because China stopped accepting our waste shipments. How dare they, right?


It was a broken system to begin with. One that the U.S. was profiting from.

It essentially worked like this:

Americans would throw everything they thought might be recyclable into one bin, the food residue on our take-out containers contaminated the paper, there might be a diaper or two in there, maybe some yard waste, but it didn’t really matter because we’d send the low-grade recyclable mess to China where it would all be sorted under poor working conditions and lax environmental controls.

And they would pay us

Then, in 2018, China decided to reduce its pollution by only accepting less contaminated recyclables, and boy oh boy, the U.S. was NOT ready.

If you’d like to read more in-depth about this particular piece of the puzzle the Sierra Club has a fantastic article: here.

But, the main point is, for a very long time we were able to actually profit off of poor recycling behavior.

That is why most cities are single-stream and why, now that we have to deal with recycling ourselves, there may be more restrictions on what is actually accepted in your city’s recycling program.

If it’s not a material of high quality, they’ll lose money trying to recycle it.

High-quality recyclables can’t be contaminated with low quality. 

In a single-stream system, contamination is very likely.

Enter the argument:

What’s the point? It’s all going to the landfill anyway.

*Cue eye roll.

The point, good sir, is that we as Americans need to step it up.

Next steps

Action needs to be taken on the municipal level to implement more rigorous (and mandatory) waste separation practices.

I’m talking separating paper from plastic.

I’m talking composting.

I’m talking easy to identify labeling.

On the national level, we need to invest in facilities that can sort and recycle domestically. It’s either that or we improve our recycling practices. China raised its standards, we should too.

What can you do at the individual level?

  1. It’s easier than you think to contact your local council members. Ask them nicely to improve recycling measures, and if they say no, then ask them more sternly with a petition in hand and a citizen group behind you. Or run against them. Whichever is more your cup of tea.
  2. Vote for elected officials who want to invest in green infrastructure rather than oil and gas which only compounds our reliance on plastics.
  3. Be like Rihanna… let me explain

Right now, we’re the otter on the left, fumbling around, going through the motions but not actually being very effective.

A+ for effort. But unfortunately, municipal waste streams don’t really give out participation prizes.

We need to be more like the otter on the right. 

Otter on the right has her eyes on the prize.

Let’s call her Rihanna.

Rihanna knows exactly where those paper cups go.

Rihanna did the work, work, work, work, work and knows that where she lives, recyclables are separated by aluminum, plastic, and others.

Do you know what the rules are where you live?

Here’s some homework:

Start with an overview video like the one below.

When you’re done, simply look up residential recycling for your city.

When you learn the rules, you’ll be diverting waste from the landfills and the oceans.

That’s not pointless. 

Leave a comment if you find anything strange on your city’s non-recyclable list, I find them really amusing.

Your sustainable lifestyle coach,