What Possible Difference Could It Make, Vol. 5: Recycling

PIPs Rewards
2 min readMay 22, 2023

I know what you are going to say. We’ve known for decades “what difference recycling can make,” so why is it still so darn hard?

Besides being good for the planet, in a single year, according to the Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report, recycling and reuse activities in the United States account for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenues.

So why then have we not figured out how to make it easier? According to CBS News, the issue is particularly acute with plastic packaging: “The U.S. generates more plastic waste than any other country, but hasn’t managed to create the well-functioning recycling systems some other nations enjoy.”

For a long while, we relied on China to buy our recyclables, but as a high percentage of the stream was contaminated and ultimately disposed as waste, routing it across the ocean was hardly a solution. China stopped importing our recycling in 2018. Without the Chinese market for plastic — as well as for some types of cardboard, paper, and glass — the U.S. recycling industry was upended.

The key to fixing recycling in the U.S. is developing the domestic market, according to Nilda Mesa, director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program at the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. What works is “where institutions and cities require a percentage of recycled content for their purchasing” such as requiring 100 percent recycled paper, or requiring recycled materials in construction projects. With small changes in regulations and purchasing commitments, demand for recycled content can go up.

The good news is “the global market for high quality recycled materials is actually growing.” The growth in e-commerce is pushing up demand for recycled paper and cardboard. At the same time, the global plastic recycling market is seeing strong growth as well. By improving the quality of recycled plastic, more companies can incorporate it into the products they produce for packaging, building and construction, electronics, automotive parts, furniture, textiles and more.

What can ordinary people like us do? The truth is we still have a lot to learn about what can and can’t be recycled. Strawberry containers and yogurt containers might have the chasing arrow signs, but they aren’t recyclable in most places. What about plastic bags, can they be recycled? Most of us are good intentioned, but a lot of the time we recycle wrong. We invite you all to take this quiz, not to embarrass anyone, but to help us all recycle better.

  • Wendy Gordon, President, PIPs Rewards LLC

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PIPs Rewards

Probing behavioral science, PIPs explores questions like: Why reward people for doing things they should do anyway? Learn more: https://pipseducationfund.org/