Recycling Needs a Top-Down Approach

Contributed by Amara Willey.

If you’ve seen the recent John Oliver piece on plastics on Last Week Tonight, you know that recycling is left up to the consumers and isn’t working too well in this country. So what would it take for us to do a better job at keeping the planet, or at least our corner of it, clean?

“It’s up to you, the consumer, to stop pollution,” Oliver states as his thesis in his take-down piece on the plastics industry. He makes the point that only 1 & 2 plastic are regularly recycled (less than 5% of all the other numbers 3-7 are recyclable given our current system). Also, virgin plastic is often cheaper to produce than utilizing recycled plastic, encouraging most manufacturers not to use recycled plastic in their products.

Right now recycling programs are left up to the states, and locally, to counties and even municipalities. There are literally hundreds of different recycling programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The lack of efficiency is mind-boggling, and leaves everyone confused about what is even recyclable in your community. According to John Oliver, that’s on purpose, so that we feel good about our recycling efforts without questioning the bigger picture.

By 2030, European countries have committed to recycling 65 percent of their waste. Here’s how some other countries are doing it better than we are.

Wales, Sweden, South Korea and Germany are all hailed as excellent recyclers. They all require by law the separate collection of dry recyclable materials and bio waste. They hold producers financially responsible, tax landfills, and provide deposit refunds to consumers.

Sweden is an oft-touted example. Less than 1 percent of Sweden’s household waste ends up in landfills. The rest is recycled or burned, which converts it into district heating, electricity, bio-gas, and bio-fertilizer. Swedish law also makes the waste producers responsible for handling all costs related to the collection and recycling or disposing of their products. 

Sweden became so good at the incineration game that it began importing waste from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway and Italy at the price of $43 per ton of waste. This generates $100 million annually for the Swedish government, according to Blue Ocean Strategy, the website for the bestselling book by that name and a business consulting organization.

“By converting its waste into energy, Sweden has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 2.2 million tons a year,” the website states. “Between 1990 and 2006, carbon dioxide emissions went down by 34%, and greenhouse gas emissions are projected to fall by 76% by 2020, compared to levels in 1990.”

Sweden educates its children about the importance of recycling, which begins with special training for teachers. Recycling stations are located near every residential area, and residents are incentivized to use them. In new urban developments, waste-to-energy converters enable residents to transform their trash into energy for their homes.

The downside to Sweden’s recycling program is the environmental pollutants released by the burning processes. Incineration is not recycling.

We need look no further than San Francisco for inspiration on better recycling management. In 2003, the city set a 17-year goal of zero waste, defined as “sending nothing to landfill, incineration or high temperature technologies.” By 2018, the city had reduced its annual landfill waste by 80 percent. Although the city is nowhere near its zero-waste goal, it is doing better than any other US city or even the European goal of 65 percent by 2030. San Francisco reset its goal last year to cut all the waste it produces by 15 percent and reduce landfill waste by another 50 percent by 2030. 

The city implemented what it calls “The Fantastic Three,” a three-stream curbside program for commercial and residential use. The three prongs include “commingled recyclables; compostable materials, including all food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard trimmings; and any remaining trash in three separate bins with various size and rate options,” according to a case study by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2009, San Francisco passed laws requiring all businesses and residences to recycle and compost. It also banned hazardous packaging materials like Styrofoam and plastic grocery bags. In addition, the city set trash collection rates much higher than recycling and composting rates, which encourage its residents to do the right thing with their trash.

The city uses one waste management company, one facility to process the compostable material and turn it into fertilizer, and one recycling facility, which makes administration and oversight of the whole process much easier, as compared to how we handle this locally with our hundreds of different systems.

While San Francisco’s waste management system costs about $300 million annually, the program is funded solely through waste collection fees, which are no higher than average for the Bay Area, as reported by CNBC.

What is needed is for the EPA to take the case study of San Francisco and turn it into national legislation. Some of the options at the federal level would include incentivizing recycling and putting a carbon tax on landfills. The federal government could also prohibit hard-to-recycle plastics and standardize waste stream production, making it easier on consumers to comply. Jeff Spross at The Week suggests that the government get into the recycling business, creating a national “public option” recycling system which could partner with local governments. 


  1. Put pressure on our MOCs to pass national recycling laws.
  2. Keep in mind that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is a mandate in chronological order, with recycling being the last choice in the slogan.
  3. Cut down on your use of items with plastic packaging (see How to live lighter on the planet for ideas). 
  4. Check your township’s website to see which items are recyclable. Make a commitment to throw out the items that aren’t recyclable even if they have the “chasing arrows” recycling logo on them. “Wishcycling,” that is wishing that items were recyclable even when they aren’t, costs recycling programs money, uses fossil fuels in transporting them, and can jam machinery at recycling plants.
  5. Watch the John Oliver piece. It’s entertaining and informative:

What’s recyclable in Lambertville:

What’s recyclable in New Hope:



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