On its face, America Recycles Day seems like a worthy environmental initiative. We’re teaching Americans how to be good stewards of the earth! We’re teaching them how to sort plastic from paper, and not to litter. What could be wrong with that?

But actually, if you look closer, this campaign doesn’t benefit the environment or people at all. It actually does the opposite: ensuring that more and more waste is sent to landfills.

“Not Our Responsibility” Day

America Recycles Day is a marketing campaign created by Keep America Beautiful, a organization started in the 1970s that made a splash with its famous ‘Crying Indian” advertising campaign. At the time, people were seeing the increasingly ubiquitous plastic litter and getting peeved at the companies that made and sold it. According to a toolkit put out by the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit focused on increasing waste recovery and recycling in the United States, the ad was enormously successful at shifting the blame to “litterbugs” and convincing state governments that the problem could be solved with a little consumer education, in lieu of legislation. It’s sort of like saying, “plastic bags don’t choke sea turtles, litterbugs choke sea turtles!”

This view is so pervasive, that when shocking photos came out last month showing the sea near Honduras choked with plastic waste that flows from a Guatemalan river into the ocean, the photographer, Caroline Power, blamed the “lack of infrastructure and education,” but didn’t place the blame where it belongs: the aggressive incursion of western consumer product companies into indigenous communities who never before needed to worry about collecting, recycling, and landfilling plastic waste, and who don’t have the funds available to even think about doing that. You an educate Guatemalans and Indonesians all you want: if they are distracted by trying to feed themselves, they’re not going to take such an interest in binning their waste.

Throughout its history, when confronted with a disgusting waste problem – cigarette butts, plastic bottles, soda can plastics chocking wildlife – Keep America Beautiful has used its significant funds to implement completely useless consumer education campaigns that tell Americans how to “properly” dispose of this waste, while opposing legislation that might actually reduce waste and increase recycling. The most recent campaign was underwritten by such environmental advocates as the American Chemistry Council, Nestlé Waters North America, Niagara Bottling, Unilever, the Anheuser-Busch Foundation and the Alcoa Foundation. These bottlers, water brands, and materials manufacturers don’t want to innovate or stop making their waste. So they’re hiding behind greenwashing campaign to tell American citizens that it’s our fault.

What, Pray Tell, Can America Recycle?

These consumer education campaigns make it seem like if we just knew how fun and beneficial recycling was, we would all do it all the time! But even the most well-educated, wealthy, and liberal consumer is confounded by the complexity of modern packaging. Beer companies can urge us to recycle all they want, but as long as they keep lining their bottle caps with plastic, we can’t put those bottle caps in the recycling. Plastic-lined coffee cups can’t be recycled in most parts of the U.S., and neither can mixed-material cartons. Stretchy plastic can supposedly be recycled, but only 3% of plastic bags are recycled in recycling mecca California because the plastic bags clog the machinery and are worthless as a recycled material. For toothpaste tubes, we’re supposed to mail them back in for recycling. Really? That’s goig to solve our waste problem? If it’s so easy and fun to do, Colgate, why don’t you do it? (Tom’s of Maine is owned by Colgate, by the way. That’s why Tom’s switched from metal to plastic tubes a few years back.) It’s not easy and fun or even possible to recycle many consumer products. Consumer product companies know this, which why they want you to do it for them.

From Your Recycling Bin to the Landfill

That brings me to the second reason why Americans don’t recycle well: it’s expensive and annoying and time consuming. In the United States, municipalities (a.k.a. the taxpayer, a.k.a. you) have to pay for waste and recycling collection. The city trucks bring recyclables to recycling plants, which are private enterprises that pay for the complex and expensive process of cleaning, sorting and compressing recyclables through the sales of recycled material in the open market. That’s right; this vital public service is done by private companies. And if the price of recycled materials drops or nobody wants the recycled material, these plants close, and the recyclables that you so carefully collected and drove to the drop-off location are sent to the landfill.

Yup, even when America does recycle, a lot of it still ends up in the landfill.

There was some crowing in 2015 about how Walmart, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and 3M had started something called the Closed Loop Fund (now defunct) to dole out about about $115 million to recycling facilities for upgrades. That’s cute, since California alone spends $500 million a year dealing with litter at beaches and in waterways.

The European Union has recognized producers’ role in this whole mess, and charges consumer brands a small fee to help defray this enormous cost, but consumer packaging and product brands have lobbied hard against “polluter pays” legislation in the UK. Still, once laws are passed in Europe and Canada compelling consumer packing and consumer product companies to take back their waste, they suddenly find a way to make it work – and they don’t go bankrupt.

Should You Recycle?

Look, I know how much it hurts to throw something recyclable in the trash can. On the other hand, it feels unfair to spend so much time cleaning and sorting and ferrying your supposed recyclables to the correct collection area when it might end up in the landfill anyway. Ugh, it’s so hard to be a conscious consumer, right?

Ok, so here’s what you do:

  1. On America Recycles Day, hijack #americarecycles to tweet pictures of all the stuff that you can’t recycle, and tag the producer(s): Frito-Lay, American Chemistry Council, Nestlé, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Anheuser-Busch, Plastic Industry Association, etc. Ask them why they sell unrecyclable packaging and why we have to pay to clean up their mess.
  2. Get educated about the facts on recycling and waste. This video may not be sexy, but it’s so illuminating. And here is an amazing fact sheet on plastic bags.
  3. Get in touch with your city council and state representatives to tell them that you support “extended producer responsibility” or “polluter pays” laws. Companies that create waste should be responsible for proper disposal of that waste. And once they are responsible for it, they’ll start getting creative about making packaging that they can actually dispose of responsibly.
  4. Support Bottle Bills, a.k.a. container deposit laws. This means a consumer pays a 5 cent deposit on all beverage containers, and retailers refunds that deposit when the bottle is returned. That takes the cost of recycling off the taxpayer and puts it on retailers and producers. Here’s a toolkit to get you started.
  5. Advocate for more compostable and easily recyclable materials. All packaging should be reusable multiple times (i.e. refillable bottles) and should be either be easily recyclable (in all recycling facilities, not just a special few) or, better yet, biodegradable. None of this mixed-material business or low-value, one-use plastic. In France, for example, all disposable cups, cutlery, and plates will have to be compostable by 2020, which is a great step in the right direction. Developing countries would do well to enforce a similar rule, especially if they don’t have proper waste disposal infrastructure. Asian, African, and Latin American countries come to mind. Rwanda has also banned plastic bags, and they ruthlessly enforce the rule. (Granted, they’re also a fairly authoritarian country. But their streets are quite clean.)
  6. Support carbon pricing or a carbon tax. When the price of oil goes down, the price of virgin plastic drops. As companies switch to cheaper virgin plastic, the demand for recycled materials also drops, which means private recycling companies close, municipalities stop collecting recycling, and less plastic is recycled. But if you start taxing or put a price on carbon, the cost of manufacturing from virgin plastic goes up, recycled plastic becomes more appealing, and that incentivizes diversion from the landfill to recycling centers.
  7. Support low-waste businesses that recycle. Get takeout from restaurants that give out compostable containers and cutlery. Stay at resorts that don’t put plastic straws in their drinks. Buy from businesses that incorporate a large amount of post-consumer plastic in their products. And tell them that you care. Tell management what you think of their styrofoam or leave a Yelp review. Don’t forget to give them a compliment or leave a positive review when they are doing well.
  8. Donate to nonprofits doing the good work. May I suggest the Container Recycling Institute, the National Resources Defense Council, or EarthJustice?
  9. Teach your kids about how to sort their recyclables. Hopefully the next generation will be experts in sorting their recyclables, refilling their beer bottles, and remembering their reusable bags for grocery shopping. Jen Panaro of Honestly Modern has a great post on how to do so.

Notice I didn’t put in instruction on how to recycle this type of packaging or that type of packaging. If you really want to know how to recycle something, ask the company who made it, not me. It’s their problem. That sounds aggressive, but I’m honestly over the idea that we consumers are ruining the recycling waste stream because of our ignorance. If you don’t want consumers to put the wrong plastic in recycling, then stop selling them that type of plastic. 

Instead, let’s spread the word about effective legislation that actually encourages recycling and biodegradable products, instead of mealy-mouthed “consumer education.”

I’m smarter than that, you’re smarter than that, and (some) of our local representatives are smarter than that, too. America Recycles Day? How about America Isn’t Having It Day instead?