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Beyond the blue bin: breaking down the state of recycling in 2019

Beyond the blue bin: breaking down the state of recycling in 2019

Aug 2, 2019




It’s a mantra we’re all familiar with—the three ‘R’s. Recycling may be the last component in the trio of waste reduction, but it’s still an incredibly important practice. The benefits are numerous: recycling reduces energy usage, air pollution, landfill space, water pollution, and it’s good for the economy, too. On a basic level, the concept is an obvious positive: why wouldn’t you want to give a useful second life to something otherwise destined for the dump?  

Thing is, it’s not as simple as putting your empty juice bottle in the blue bin instead of the green bin. In fact, it goes quite a ways beyond the colored bins. Strangely, much of our modern recycling routine remains a mystery once it’s off the curb, and it’s made even more complicated by recent foreign policies. Let’s dive into it.

Photo courtesy of Goetz Heinen


You know those three chasing arrows in the ‘recycle’ sign? Those represent the three parts in the process: collection, manufacturing and buying. They’re pretty self-explanatory: your recycling is collected from the curb, then broken down and reformed, and finally, it’s packaged and sold as a new product.

It’s not a new idea, by any measure. In fact, about a century ago, economic depressions made reducing, reusing and recycling a necessity—many people simply couldn’t afford new things, so they’d reuse the heck out of what they had. But in the postwar period of economic boom, that conservatism faded from America’s mind. It became so much cheaper to produce and buy new things that the three ‘R’s were pretty much abandoned, not worth the trouble. It wasn‘t until the first Earth Day in 1970, and the ensuing environmental movement, that recycling once again became a mainstream practice—not because of the financial aspect, but because it became clear that all this waste is a real environmental problem. Since then, the recycling rate has generally been increasing each year, according to our friends at the EPA.

Photo courtesy of

But listen to the news and you’ll hear stories of China not accepting our recycling, entire cities shutting down their recycling programs, more and more truckloads heading to the incinerator, and the increasing mounds of plastic (the majority of which could have been recycled) entering our oceans every single day. This has us wondering:

What really happens to that empty bottle we put in the blue bin?

Photo courtesy of


Recyclable materials are usually collected from our homes in one of two ways: either we separate them, keeping the plastics apart from the aluminums, or we lump them all into one bin and they are sorted at a facility.

Photo courtesy of Ildar Sagdejev


At the recovery facility, recyclables are sorted, cleaned, and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. At this point, those materials are bought and sold just like raw materials would be, meaning that prices go up and down depending on supply and demand.

Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Agenda


While many of these materials are “down-cycled,” meaning that their recycled value is less than it was as a virgin material (think of used paperit is usually 100% recyclable, but still, when it has ink and other chemicals on it it can’t be used in the same way as the virgin material), they are still used to produce a new, if different, product. 

Photo courtesy of Felix Cesare


And the problem has two parts. First, it’s still not a common enough practice. While the EPA estimates that about 75% of the US waste stream is recyclable, only about 34% of it actually makes it to the third step (for comparison’s sake, Germany’s rate is about 62%). Additionally, even when things are recycled, people don’t clean them thoroughly enough, or they throw in non-recyclables, and that messes up the whole batch.

And the second part: For most of our lifetimes, China was the leading importer of scrap and recycled materials from the US. As a rapidly developing country, China needed inexpensive raw material, like recyclable plastic, to feed all the growth. And for our part, it was much cheaper for the US to ship all the material to China than it was to process it locally.

Photo courtesy of USA Today

But that changed last year. Our recyclables were too dirty with food residue, and we were extremely bad at sorting them. So with the aggressively-named “National Sword” policy, China banned importation of many plastics and set stringent standards on other materials: they must be 99.5% pure to be allowed in. Most recycling sorting centers in the US are simply unable to meet those standards.

So with the world’s largest buyer of recyclables basically out of the game, the market for these materials crashed. All of a sudden, the recyclables collected on the street didn’t have a place to go. Cities went from earning tens of thousands by selling recyclables to paying hundreds of thousands to get rid of them.

Photo courtesy of The Washington Post


US recycling may be in a bit of a crisis, but that doesn’t mean we can or should abandon it altogether. There are still materials we recycle domestically, because there’s a market here for them. Things like aluminum and metal should never end up in a landfill—a Dr. Pepper can can go from crumpled in your recycling bin to new on the shelf in as little as 90 days. High-density plastics still hold value. Glass can be ground up into asphalt, cardboard can easily be reused, and there are more and more facilities finding ways to use old plastic bottles.

Beyond that, we’re working on it. The EPA held its first-ever recycling summit last November. Many US organizations have dedicated staff and resources to coming up with solutions. Programs throughout the country are stepping up efforts to decrease contamination—no more tossing items absentmindedly into the bin. Dozens of US paper mills have established a new capacity to process recycled paper. And support is growing nationally for banning single-use consumer plastics like straws and grocery bags.

Photo courtesy of


Somewhere along the way, the first two of the three ‘R’s got a little neglected. We’ve lost track of reducing and reusing. Yes, recycling is great, it gives a second life to garbage. But let’s not forget that we can stop those items from being thrown out in the first place. People create pollution, and people can stop pollution.

But it needs to be done at all levels: not only do we need to learn to buy less, but companies need to design more sustainable products and packaging, and nations need to develop more recycling infrastructure. We’re in this together, after all. At United By Blue, our designers have really taken this to heart, and we’re working on products that are not only created using recycled materials, but products that help people generate less waste. This is the whole idea behind the EveryDay Reusables™.

We're working to design the tools needed to tackle two of the 'R’s: reduce waste, and reuse what you’ve got. But we know the problem is a lot bigger than plastic straws and forks, so we're continuing to seek out solutions. In the meantime, there’s a lot that each of us can do to reuse objects that are often thrown away. Here are some easy ways to give items a second life:



Use them as trash can liners, or as a replacement for packing peanuts, or just reuse them each time you go to the store.

 Photo courtesy of The Wayne Times


Jam jars, pasta jars, kombucha bottles—these can be used as food storage, soap dispensers, candle holders, and for countless DIY projects.

 Photo courtesy of Denise Johnson


Cut the fabric into rags to use around the house, take on a sewing project and upcycle it into stuffed animals, bags, or patches, or donate any clothing that’s still in good shape to Salvation Army or Goodwill.

 Photo courtesy of KQED


Use an empty wine bottle as a single-stem vase, a slow-dip irrigator for your plants, or use it to store rice, lentils or M&M’s in your pantry.

Photo courtesy of AVA Grace Vineyards


Recycle them for an even better second life—how about a backpack? REPREVE, a company in North Carolina, turns old plastic water bottles into the recycled polyester that makes up our (R)evolution bags. Take a closer look at what that process entails in our Recycled Polyester blog.

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