Why only a third of our trash is being recycled


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    Workers at a recycling plant in Iowa sort materials into groups that can be sold to make new products.

    - Sarah McCammon

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    Recyclable materials from across the Des Moines area are collected by trucks and delivered to this recycling plant for sorting.

    - Sarah McCammon

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    The "tipping floor" at a recycling plant in Des Moines is the first place where recyclable materials are delivered. They are then sorted and sold as commodities: paper, plastic, cardboard.

    - Sarah McCammon

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    A mix of paper, plastic, and cardboard, are among the materials sorted on a conveyor belt at a recycling plant in Des Moines, Iowa.

    - Sarah McCammon

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    After sorting, recycled goods are piled into bales and sold as commodities to companies that make them into new products.

    - Sarah McCammon
It’s been more than 40 years since the “Crying Indian” campaign encouraged Americans to protect the environment and fight pollution. If you don’t remember the ad -- or weren’t born yet -- a Native American man sheds a single after seeing so much pollution -- streams littered with garbage, and drivers tossing trash out the window.

Decades later, only about 35 percent of the nation’s trash is being recycled. A new campaign from the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful is trying to change that.

But it can be a challenge to make recycling both convenient and cost-effective. Part of the problem is all the things people put in the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there.

Kelley McReynolds is the manager of a recycling plant in Des Moines. He says the first step is pulling out items that can damage the plant’s sorting equipment.


“Plastic bags, shopping bags, dog chain, garden hoses,” he says. The plant is filled with a maze of metal chutes and conveyer belts that help workers separate piles of trash into groups -- paper, plastic, aluminum.

“Some material goes to China, some to Mexico City,” McReynolds says. “Some stays as close as Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”

Those materials are sold, and the profit is shared with the city. That covers about half of the cost of Des Moines’ recycling program -- depending on market fluctuations. But when items come into the plant that aren’t recyclable, it makes the system less cost-effective. Mark Lichtenstein, president of the National Recycling Coalition, says some of those problems can be addressed through better education about recycling.

“I’m not here to tell you recycling is the panacea, or the silver bullet,” he says. “Recycling has inherent problems if it’s not done correctly.”

Another problem is that too many things that could be recycled are still going in the trash. To change that, experts say you have to make it more convenient. The city of Houston is exploring an approach called “One Bin For All.”

“The concept there is, 'just put everything in one bin' -- not just recyclables, but even trash -- you know, your household garbage,” says Gary Readore of Houston’s solid waste management department. “I think the verdict is still out on that whether you’ll be able to do that at a cost that is really feasible.”

The reason everyone isn’t doing this already is that sorting is expensive. And when you throw your baby’s diapers in with your junk mail, otherwise useable items can become contaminated.

Another way to get people to recycle is to make them pay more for trash. In Middletown, R.I., residents who opt in to the town’s garbage collection program pay an annual fee. After that, coordinator Will Cronin says recycling is free, but trash bags cost $2 apiece.

“You have the financial incentive to recycle more, Cronin says. “You’ll be pulling out newspapers and milk jugs to make more room for non-recyclable waste.”

That keeps more trash out of the landfill. Mick Barry, a recycling consultant based in Iowa, says cities save money in the long run on landfill fees and garbage hauling.

“All those costs never show up as a check back to the city or municipality, however that is money they’ve avoided spending,” Barry says.

Whatever system a city chooses, it’s going to cost something.

“It may look free,” he says, “but somewhere along the line, somebody’s paying for that truck to come by.”

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