I have a confession to make: I am a horrible recycler. Even though my job is to think about and chronicle the fate of our polluted planet, I still often can’t be asked to rinse out my plastic containers or find a recycling can on the street when I’m done with my Coke. My even darker confession: With how broken our recycling system is, I sometimes wonder if that really matters.
Like a lot of us that grew up in the 1990s, I got it drilled into my brain that individual action could absolutely save the planet—and recycling was the key to it all. Following a “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”-themed science class in fourth grade, I have a distinct memory of resolutely trudging our big blue recycling bin down to the end of our long driveway in the snow with an almost heroic resolve that what I was doing mattered.
I went to a crunchy college in Maine with a big emphasis on sustainability, where my recycling indoctrination continued through the late 2000s. As a freshman, I had it pounded into my head to cut away the greasy parts of late-night pizza boxes we’d drunkenly order before folding up the clean parts to recycle. One of my best friends would dress up as a blue can and skate around our hockey rink during games at halftime to promote our school’s recycling program.
But things changed when I hit adulthood. I’m lazy—and pretty messy. I’ve also lived in a bunch of different cities in many different apartments throughout my 20s. That meant constantly changing municipal schedules and rules for recycling as well as different roommates or partners who had different priorities when it came to doing chores. I scraped by mostly relying on the people I lived with to take care of the whole recycling thing.
As I got more and more involved in learning about the bigger picture of our ecological crisis, I also become more concerned about institutions rather than individuals when it came to meaningful actions. Big Oil spent decades perpetuating climate denial. Plastic producers—almost a perfect Venn diagram circle with oil companies—have foisted an increasing pile of single-use items on us. And in the U.S., our recycling system has failed to keep pace. Addressing this requires major structural changes, and individual action can feel like a drop in the bucket.
This brings me to my 32-year-old self, living in my first solo apartment this year, with only one catch-all recycling bin for all that stuff I somehow end up consuming and disposing of week after week (how is it so much stuff?). This time, my only roommate is a small dog who I can’t turn to to ask “can we recycle this yogurt container or not, do you remember?” or “can you wash out the bottles tonight? I’m tired.” I realized how bad I’d gotten the other day, when in a fit of kitchen spring cleaning I found myself chucking whole plastic takeout containers from the back of the fridge directly into the trash, with zero interest in taking the two minutes to rinse and separate them out.
I could blame my landlord, who hasn’t set up a clear recycling system for our building (just a bunch of bins, where trash and bottles alike seem to get mixed). I could blame the city of New York, which seriously lags behind other major U.S. cities and its own goals and only recycles around one-fifth of its trash. But it’s time to acknowledge that I need to clean up my act, too.
The thing is, it’s hard to feel jazzed about recycling the way we all were in the 1990s, back when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Captain Planet episodes had messages about plastic waste and celebs as disparate as Bette Midler, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder, Pat Benetar, and Ozzy Ozbourne all participated in the same recycling PSA (it’s a real trip). While recycling as we know it was invented in the 1970s, it really caught on when I was a kid: 20% of the U.S. recycled in 1995, double the rate of the previous decade; three years later, that number was up to 30%. The messages of recycling as a movement—let’s all pitch in to clean up—was so strong that a 2006 poll found that around 70% of both Democrats and Republicans said they supported the practice.
Unfortunately, it turns out that part of our enthusiasm for recycling was driven by the big polluters themselves. Like casino blackjack dealers keeping their customers on the hook, both our plastics habit and the national fervor over recycling were stoked by industries that had a lot to lose with a different, less consumer-focused approach to cleaning up trash. The beverage and packaging industry has a long history of fighting legislation that would hold them responsible for waste. They also spent money on campaigns to promote individual responsibility as the solution. Big Oil, unsurprisingly, got into this game too: Internal industry documents exposed by journalists last year show that oil companies as early as the 1970s knew that recycling would never really work on a large scale. Yet those same companies spent millions promoting it as a way to sell more plastic, and thus more oil.
It’s not totally surprising, then, that the U.S.’s recycling practices, which were predicated on letting companies get away with murder while enforcing confusing, consumer-based rules about which stuff to toss and what to recycle, are basically broken. Dirty food containers can contaminate entire batches of recyclables, while the fuzzy rules about what can and can’t be recycled means that things people think could be recycled often can’t. That means weird stuff ends up at facilities and a lot of it goes to the landfill as a result.
Because companies that produce plastic bottles, bags and containers have no responsibility tied to the waste they produce after it leaves their hands and goes to the consumer, they have no incentive to produce recyclable packaging or stop creating new products that further confuse people and glom up the system. After China banned the import of foreign trash in 2018, the market for recyclable stuff tanked, and U.S. started shipping a lot of our recycling overseas to countries with really lax environmental regulations; between 20 to 70% of that plastic, some researchers have found, ends up in the ocean anyway. In my city, the New York Times reported last year that a lot of the stuff we put out curbside in blue bags actually gets mixed in with the landfill-bound trash either by the garbage collectors or the trash companies themselves, due to the low demand for recyclables.
That last point really gets me. If what I carefully sort every day ends up in a landfill anyway, why even try? It’s enough to get anyone down about the practice, not just me. As I was writing this piece, I was chatting with some college friends about our robust, hockey-based enthusiasm for recycling back on campus and why things have changed since the late 2000s. “Nobody is good at recycling because most of what we recycle can’t actually be recycled 🤡” my friend texted me. Seems like I’m not the only one feeling bummed about the whole thing.
But, ultimately, we do have to try. Recycling may not be the key to saving the planet like we were sold on in the 1990s; like so many other climate solutions, the realization that we’ve been sold into accepting consumer responsibility for things that aren’t our fault is heartbreaking. But it can’t cripple us forever. There are examples of cities in the U.S. with great recycling rates and programs, so even if my municipal recycling system isn’t working great, I’m privileged enough to try to take advantage of every avenue to recycle and network with other folks to change how our system works.
I think that at the end of the day, even if my carefully sorted plastics end up in a landfill, the value I’m assigning to trying to get better at recycling has to do with just being aware of my own consumption habits. After all, the saying I learned as a kid of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” starts with “Reduce.” I think that maybe we’ve been leaning too heavily on the last R while forgetting the first one.
I may be tired, I may be very lazy, I may be far too cynical about the role big businesses have played in shaping our consumption habits and the efficacy of local governments in properly disposing of recyclable stuff. But I still gotta do my part. And maybe I can figure out a way to stop ordering so much takeout in the process.