My Voice - 2020

Recycling the Carolinas

By Molly Black

Recycling is touted as one of the most accessible ways an individual can live an environmentally friendly lifestyle. This everyday practice seems fairly straightforward: paper, plastics, glass, into the bin and out onto the curb, away they go, your civic duty complete. But what happens to your recyclables when they are whisked away?

Recycling in the United States is first and foremost a business. Prior to 2018 the U.S. outsourced the majority of its recycling, particularly plastics, overseas to Asia. This large-scale outsourcing led to the decline of the domestic recycling industry. In 2018 the announcement of China's refusal to accept any more plastic waste from the U.S. shook the framework of waste management in the States. The reality of the recycling industry in the U.S. is that companies are continuing to produce new plastics and packaging materials at increasing rates yet relying upon the broken recycling network to get plastics back. The lack of an effective industry means that even though an item can be recycled doesn't mean it will be. The dependence on foreign markets has become abundantly clear with the U.S. still scrambling to find solutions at home today with many recycling programs ending around the country and local governments sending recycling to the landfill or the furnace.

The goal for the recycling industry going forward is to create a “circular economy" wherein: society needs plastic, but people must begin recycling at much higher rates, and re-use products again and again both at home and through industrial recycling. The hope with this model is to significantly cut down on the onslaught of new plastics being created every year. The issue remains that recycling is expensive. Recycled plastics cost three times that of virgin or brand-new plastics. This is one of the greatest barriers to creating an effective recycling industry in the United States. Without the incentive of profit and recycling left to individual states and municipalities there just aren't enough resources to handle the tsunami of new plastics being produced and consumed in the U.S. every year.

What can you do?

With the state of recycling throughout the United States in shambles it can feel overwhelming to know how to help, leaving many consumers wondering if it is even worth the effort if the majority of recyclables end up in landfills. The short answer is yes! There is much consumers can do to increase recycled materials and improve the recycling industry as a whole.

One of the greatest barriers to recycling is a lack of consumer understanding of proper practices. Wherever you may live within the U.S. the following tips could help get more items recycled properly.

1. Wash out your recyclables

Recycling contamination is one of the most prevalent issues in recycling. Nearly 60 percent of recyclables being sent to the landfills are due to consumers not properly rinsing and cleaning out products. If there is food residue remaining on recyclable products, they will be thrown out, so remember to wash out your containers thoroughly before putting them in the bin.

2. Don't use plastic bags

When collecting recyclable at home do not put them into a kitchen trash bag or the bags you get from the grocery store. These items are not recyclable and will most likely result in your recycling automatically being sent to the landfill. Consider asking for paper bags when grocery shopping, these can be used to collect recyclables and be recycled themselves.

3. Know what you can and cannot recycle

Knowing what can and cannot be recycled is one of the most complicated aspects of recycling. This differs per city and region depending on what local body manages recycling waste in your area. While this is true there is a general rule of thumb to follow.

Beware of pizza boxes, while these are made of cardboard they are often rejected due to having residual food that remains in the box. Including these in your recycling could result in an entire load of recycling being rejected due to contamination.

Other products to consider are ones with multiple recyclable materials such as a peanut container. These have a cardboard side, steel bottom, and plastic top. Machines at recycling plants are not able to process these, so consumers must separate each part of the container in order for the item to be recycled.

Important to understanding what is recyclable is to read the labels on your household items. Items marked with the triangle arrow recycling label are technically recyclable items. The numbers on the container represent the type of plastic the item is made out of. The most common plastics accepted by nearly all recycling plants are types 1, 2, and 3. While this is a guideline to follow, it can also be misleading, such as with plastic containers which often hold fruit and berries. This is a type 1 plastic but due to the nature of the product they are susceptible to high levels of food contamination and hold a different melting point to other type 1 plastics. These are not recyclable.

It is important to remember that not every plastic product is recyclable so checking local guidance on recycling is essential. Website links are provided at the end of this article for more detailed information on recycling in the Carolinas.

4. Buy recycled products

In order to drive the recycling industry, we as consumers must actively seek out items made out of recycled materials. Buying recycled products really matters, creating demand and revenue for the recycling industry will only lead to more items getting recycled. Being a conscious consumer and buying recycled materials will bring us closer to the goal of a circular economy.

The Carolinas

Here in the Carolinas the problems within the recycling industry are just as prevalent. With the shift to domestic handling of recycling many major companies had to change their recycling models. Customers across the Carolinas would have seen the price for recycling services rise over the 2019-2020 year and the frequency of curbside pickup drop off.

In both North Carolina and South Carolina most waste and recycling programs are run by local governments such as towns, cities, counties, and authorities. In order to learn about recycling programs and guidance in your area you will need to find local government resources. If you are looking to learn more about recycling best practice, please visit the links provided below.

North Carolina:

- Charlotte-Mecklenburg:

- Raleigh-Durham:

- Greensboro:

South Carolina:

- Greenville:

- Spartanburg:

- Columbia:

Molly Black is a reference librarian based out of Charlotte, NC. Contact her at: