You may have read that there’s a recycling crisis in the U.S. After years of accepting our used plastic and cardboard, China now won’t take it, which often means there is no place for it to go. Some city recycling programs—unable to find other buyers—have quietly started sending recyclables to incinerators or landfills, news that could make anyone question the point of separating your trash at all.

But the news is both worse—and better—than you might think. Recycling was broken in the U.S. long before China’s announcement, but there are promising technologies poised to revolutionize each point where our system currently fails. The question is, can the solutions scale fast enough to make a difference?

Each year, by one estimate, Americans throw out around 22 million tons of products that could have been recycled. Tens of millions of homes don’t have access to recycling; for those that do, everything from broken blenders to old clothing still ends up in the trash. If you drop an empty package in a recycling bin and it’s trucked off to a sorting facility, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be recycled. You might have unwittingly tossed something that your local recycling service doesn’t accept, or the package might have been designed in a way that makes it unrecyclable.

Some parts of the system do work. The aluminum in a beer can, for example, can easily be made into new beer cans, over and over again. But a plastic package might be chopped up, melted, mixed with other types of plastic, and “downcycled” into a lower-quality material that can only be used for certain products, like park benches or black plastic planters. When the U.S. was sending much of its paper and plastic trash to China, for more than two decades, the bales were often so poorly sorted that they contained garbage. The system never extracted the full value from those materials.

If the final recycled material is bad quality, it’s difficult for the recycling industry to make enough money to afford to collect, sort, and process plastic waste, especially when the cost of oil is low and virgin plastic is also cheap. For recycling to be economically viable—and to have the most benefit for the environment—we’ll need to do things differently. China’s ban is “exposing a problem that we needed to fix anyway,” says Bridget Croke, VP of external affairs at Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on the circular economy. “It’s really kind of been a wake-up call to clean up the recycling stream.” There are problems at every step of a product’s or package’s life—including the fact that many single-use packages arguably never should have been made in the first place.

Collection

For anything that’s recyclable, the first challenge is getting it into the recycling system at all. One recycling startup estimates that around 34 million rural homes and around 16 million apartments—or around 40% of the households in the country—don’t have access to recycling at home. In rural areas, there isn’t enough population density to make it economical to invest in trucks (which can cost $300,000) and bins ($100 a piece) when the cost of that equipment needs to be split between a small number of homes. The startup, called Recyclops, uses an Uber-like model to bring collection to areas where it wouldn’t be feasible otherwise.

“Especially in rural America, there’s a plethora of pickup trucks and a shortage of jobs,” says Ryan Smith, the startup’s founder. The company hires people to use their own trucks to pick up bags filled with recycling in a particular area, and then aggregates materials to bring to a recycling center. “We can identify a community, and then in 30 days, we could launch in that community because we don’t have to buy the trucks,” he says. “We don’t have to buy the bins. We don’t have to sign a city contract. We just have to start marketing to customers who sign up.” The startup also works with apartment buildings in cities like Phoenix, and it plans to expand to 40 additional markets this year.

[Photo: Recycling Partnership]

A nonprofit called the Recycling Partnership gives cities grants for supplies like recycling bins along with consulting to help expand recycling, funded by corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi that are desperate for a bigger source of recycled materials as they aim to increase recycled content in their packaging. The nonprofit also works with those companies to help them create products and packaging that are actually recyclable. Closed Loop Partners, which also works with large corporations, invests money from those companies in startups such as rPlanet Earth, an L.A.-area startup that has a closed-loop plant that takes in plastic containers and bottles and converts them into new food-grade containers onsite, in a world first. The fund also invests in startups with innovations across the entire recycling system.”We recognized that it wasn’t just one part of the system that needed to be solved for—we needed to address all of it in different ways,” says Ellen Martin, VP of impact and strategic initiatives at Closed Loop Partners.

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