Updated: Feb 7, 2021
It’s 11am on a cold Saturday morning, and I’m crying at a waste management facility in East Tennessee. While, just a month ago I was walking barefoot outside of our holiday accommodation in Australia happily tossing my glass, plastic, & paper into a tidy yellow recycling bin in front of my house. Oh, how things can change in a short amount of time! What brought on the sobfest was the shocking realization that you can’t recycle glass at this facility or any other waste facility within 150 miles and that my clean & separated glass was instead destined for a landfill.
At this point I had just moved back to Tennessee after living in Australia for nearly 3 years and hadn’t lived in Tennessee for over 5 years. While I was in Australia was when I had my big “eco-awakening” and started diving deeper into a sustainable lifestyle and I fully intended on continuing this lifestyle when I arrived back in the states. Flash forward to that depressing Saturday morning and I’ve somewhat naively discovered just how dire the recycling situation is in most of the United States.
Sure, there are some parts of the country that do a great job at recycling. Places like California, Vermont, and New York have done fantastic work in the last 20 years to make it easier for everyone to recycle. I can tell you from personal experience though that this is not the reality for most of the country. That day I found out that there is actually nowhere within a 3 hour drive of where I live to recycle glass. Instead it all has to go to a landfill. But why? Isn’t glass a recyclable material?
The reality is that to recycle something it has to be beneficial and easy to access for all parties involved, including the recycling citizens, the local government responsible for collecting the items, and the manufacturers that buy recycled material. In the US and most other countries in the world, this is a very broken system. For example, in Tennessee there are only 2 manufacturers in the entire state that will accept recycled glass and they are both outside of Nashville. For the district that I live in, it cost the local government triple what they received in payment for the glass to transport it to the manufacturers. So, the program was losing way more money than it was making or than it was funded for and had to be shut down.
From just this small example we can see that while many citizens and local governments would like to recycle items like glass the entire system is so broken it becomes nearly impossible. That’s why recycling is not, never has been, and never will be the solution for the pollution crisis we are facing today. The only solution that works is to reduce our consumption of these materials and invest in a circular economy with refillable items instead of 'recyclable' ones.