Are Our Recyclables Really Being Recycled?


A question that bothers some and persuades others to not even bother sorting their trash in the first place: are our recycled items actually being recycled, or just ending up in a landfill? And are they being recycled in a responsible way? I looked into some articles that discussed the topic.

In one article, a writer in Chicago wrote about how the waste is handled in the city’s facilities. Like many places around the country, Chicago residents have a separate bin for recyclable materials, as well as a separate pickup day for the trucks. The benefits of this system are that its easy on the consumer, and owning a bin is more likely to make people participate. The problem begins when the collecting and sorting happens. A lot of the time, recyclables cannot be recovered or reused, because they are irreparably damaged (like shattered glass) or are contaminated with bio matter.

Another article talks about how when recycling was first introduced, people would deposit recyclables into three separate bins: one for glass, one for plastic, and one for paper. As technology advanced and sorting facilities employed tools like magnets and electrical currents for metals and infrared lasers sort through plastic and paper. This allowed consumers to start putting all their recyclables in one place. This type of sorting is called “single-stream collection”, where all the materials are jumbled together before being processed by machines.


I found that these articles never said in clear terms that our waste is for sure being recycled. But, both articles said that we know at least a portion of our garbage is being recycled because recycled materials are a commodity, meaning that they are worth money in the market place. The cans and bottles that we recycle can be broken down and made into new materials that are sold to manufacturing companies. And since its become trendy to be “green”, producers have begun to include recycled materials in their products for consumers to buy.

So yes, recycling is valuable! Even if you don’t know exactly where and how your recyclables are being used, know that something, somewhere is being done to encourage and bring these materials full circle.


3 thoughts on “Are Our Recyclables Really Being Recycled?

  1. I’ve had his conversation multiple times with people at school. They don’t separate out their trash even though our school offers the convenience of separate bins. They think that the school doesn’t recycle because they’ve seen the janitors through away bags of ‘recyclables’. But they don’t understand that they HAD to through it away because it was contaminated, but people who didn’t separate out their trash.

    And so it’s just a vicious cycle.

    Moral of the story: Separate out your recyclables. If nothing else, at least your doing what you can, and hopefully it will get to where it needs to go.

  2. Recycling is very important (it’s one of the small things we can do to help), but it does need to be sorted and I agree that it’s well worth your effort. I know back home we have to look at the bottoms of our containers to see what number it is to know whether our collectors will take it. Here’s a chart (link below)to better understand the numbering system (and make sure to double check with your local recycling people, some times they don’t take all of these, as I found out the hard way…)

  3. At Ringling, the main issue (especially at Brickman Cafe) is that there aren’t large trash cans being put out during prime eating hours. Students throw waste into the very small waste bin and when its gets full, they have to throw their trash in the other recycling slots, which of course contaminates what would have been recycled. Vicious circle as Kim said. Im working with the Sustainability Committee here at Ringling to amend this and we should start seeing a regular trash bin out during lunch and dinner time at Brickman Cafe.
    Simple solutions….

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