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How To Be A Better Recycler

Nearly three-quarters of Americans have access to curbside recycling pick up.
Daniel Lobo,
Nearly three-quarters of Americans have access to curbside recycling pick up.

Recycling: we’ve all been told it’s the right thing to do. But the rules are often confusing, which might explain why Americans think we’re recycling 75 percent of recyclable trash when the actual number is closer to one third.

The past year has brought even more concerning news about recycling than usual. Like the closure of Massachusetts’ only glass recycling facility. Or the fact that China is now refusing to accept many American waste products that used to get recycled there.

So, what’s going on with recycling?  

When China stopped accepting poor-quality recyclables from the United States, it was an effort to strengthen its own domestic recycling infrastructure.

But it was also a wake-up call that people need to do a better job recycling. That’s according to Beth Porter, a recycling and sustainability consultant and author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System.

“We have this disruption happening where we’re trying to find new end markets, new demand for these recycled materials,” Porter told Living Lab Radio.

Porter says she wants to reassure consumers that recycling is still the right thing to do and will make a difference in the long term.

“And [it] can make an even bigger difference when we recycle correctly,” she said.

That means, “clean empty and dry.”

It also means not putting things in the blue bin that don’t belong there, like plastic bags, garden hoses, old shoes, and a myriad of other objects.

They call it ‘wish cycling.’

“Which is when, 'Gosh, I don't want to throw this in the landfill, I want to recycle it.'”

But wish cycling causes major headaches.

“One flimsy plastic bag can wrap around the machinery and can cause huge problems for folks trying to sort through the volumes of stuff that they get every day,” she said.

It's far better to check out a web site like Earth 911 for where to recycle various things.

Consumers also have an important role to play at the end of the process by buying recycled products, Porter said.

“That's how we make sure that there is a demand for the products we’re trying to recycle,” she said.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.