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A Vision for a More Perfect Recycling System 

Recycling system-recycle-recyclable-plastics-contamination 
Recycling system-recycle-recyclable-plastics-contamination 

As we approach Earth Day, many people will pause and ask what they can do to help the planet. Recent research shows 8 out of 10 people look to recycling as a trusted tool to protect the planet. We at The Recycling Partnership agree.

Recycling is an important way to conserve our world’s overtaxed natural resources, but the U.S. recycling system, made up of 9,000 individual community programs, needs attention so that it can finally deliver its full potential. 

This Earth Month, we invite others to join us in calling for a more perfect recycling system — one that ensures everyone in the country can recycle, everyone does recycle, and that the nation’s recycling infrastructure expands to ensure that yesterday’s boxes, cans, and bottles turn into tomorrow’s goods. 

The current picture

According to The Recycling Partnership’s 2024 State of Recycling Report, only 21% of recyclable material is being recycled. That means 79% of material that could be recycled is ending up in the trash. Why?

Before we point fingers at the public, we first need to address the recycling opportunities gap in this country. Nearly 33 million U.S. households still lack the ability to recycle. That’s why our mission-driven organization works so hard to use grant dollars to help more communities like Orlando, Kansas City, or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan ensure everyone in their town can recycle at home.   

Once we ensure that all people can recycle, we then need to make sure that more people do. According to The Partnership’s Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact, 60% of people are confused about what can and can’t be recycled. That means we must make it easier to know what’s recyclable and build consistency from one town to the next.

There’s good news: The newly launched is a free tool, connecting recycling information across all of America’s 9,000 different recycling programs.   

Then comes the part of ensuring old stuff turns into new. From recycled content paper mills in the Northeast, steel and aluminum can manufacturers in the Gulf Coast, and plastics recyclers in California, the U.S. infrastructure for recycling is ready to deliver. By utilizing this infrastructure, we avoid extracting resources from the planet and reduce greenhouse gases, protecting our natural habitats.  

Where we can go

So how do we get the United States from where it is to where we all want it to be? The strongest tool our country has sits with our policymakers. Maine, Colorado, Oregon, and California have all recently passed legislation committed to delivering comprehensive recycling overhaul by ensuring companies who make the goods we buy every day also take financial and environmental responsibility for ensuring those products are reduced, reused, or recycled. 

The projected impact for states that have passed this legislation cannot be understated. It includes seeing the percentage of recycled material rise to 67%, more than 5.4 million new tons, showing significant potential growth in these states’ recycling systems. 

Companies can also expand their commitment to the recycling system by committing to packaging that is both recyclable and recycled. Current information indicates thatless than half of plastic packaging is designed to be recyclable. To combat this, companies can design packaging for recyclability, fund initiatives to bring recycling to all U.S. households, and support policy initiatives that help recycling reach its full potential.

My recycling vision 

My vision is to build a better recycling system. We all know it’s easier said than done, and accomplishing this goal takes serious commitment from business leaders, community recycling facilities, policymakers, and innovation partners. But if we all unite to tackle issues head-on, change can be made.  

Over our first 10 years of creating a better recycling system, The Recycling Partnership’s work has demonstrated that trust in the recycling system is built when everyday people see corporate and policy commitments in action. They become dedicated and empowered to recycle, resulting in increased participation and decreased contamination.  

We know what works and we know the gaps we still need to address. We have an obligation to honor the everyday person who remains committed to recycling, and it turns out there are a lot of us out there. We need to simplify the system and give people greater access to local information, as we do with solutions like The Recycling Partnership’s Recycle Check tool. And lastly, we need policymakers and companies to commit to doing everything they can to build trust in the system. 

Together, we can build a better recycling system. 

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