Redesigning Recycling


Perhaps you’ve seen the waves of plastic strangling our oceans or even spotted an overflowing trash bin in your neighborhood, spewing out single-use items.

Many of us have heard the familiar saying “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but it might be so familiar that it’s lost its power and meaning.

By Beth Porter, Campaign Director at Green America and author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine

These jarring sights serve as reminders of systems that are designed to spawn profits through waste, systems whose ill effects go beyond what we encounter in our daily lives. Impacts occur throughout an item’s life, from the extraction of its raw materials to its production, usage, and then ultimately its discard. The rate at which a product is used before being discarded depends on a number of factors, but one central driver for this repetition is demand. Corporations demand certain materials for products while consumers demand certain products based on our needs or desires. This demand typically follows a linear line of extract, produce, consume, dispose, often into a landfill or incinerator, but the way we use materials can evolve to a method that uses resources more responsibly.

Many of us have heard the familiar saying “reduce, reuse, recycle”, but it might be so familiar that it’s lost its power and meaning. When practiced in order, this phrase is actually a fundamental shift in how we use materials and resources. Reducing comes first because it is paramount to curbing environmental impact. It allows us to inspect consumption and ask ourselves if waste can be halted before it begins. It urges companies to explore designing a product using fewer, and more sustainable, materials. It’s estimated that for every one bin of waste a household tosses out, seventy bins of waste were generated during the production of those items. The next step is reusing or repurposing items. To practice this, we can line our daily routines with reusable mugs and bags and strive to “shop our homes” to use what we already own. We can buy secondhand and join community sharing programs, public libraries, and repair goods rather than replace them. This is where creativity can flourish.

And lastly, we can recycle things we need to discard. Recycling is a more responsible discard method than linear options (burning or burying our waste) because it allows us to break down items and create new goods from the raw materials. It can reduce extraction methods like mining and deforestation, which have climate impacts and can harm local communities, especially when irresponsible methods are used. Using recycled materials also saves energy and other resources during production. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that recycling in the United States reduces 184 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road. And this is achieved through our national recycling rate of 35 percent. Other nations are recycling nearly twice as much, so we’ve got lots of room to improve. There are clear benefits to recycling, but we need to be very clear about what recycling is and what it isn’t. It isn’t a magic way to erase all the impacts of the products we toss out. Recycling is a complex system with many different groups of people overlapping throughout the process of breaking down materials to build new.

If you have recycling in your area, it’s likely single-stream, where you toss all recyclables in the same bin. This method increases participation, but also increases contamination. Recyclables that are coated in food or half full of liquid are too contaminated for resale, and contamination can also damage other materials like paper that are vulnerable in a single-stream system. Contamination also includes “wishcycling”, when we put items in the bin because we hope they’re recyclable, but they may not be accepted by our local service. This could be an item that may technically be recyclable but can’t navigate the current process. For example, flimsy plastic bags can get caught in sorting machinery and shut down facilities for the entire time it takes to safely dislodge them (bags can be taken back to your grocery store and reusable bags are always best). Some sorting facilities report that multiple hours every day are spent untangling items that have snaked around equipment. This creates huge, costly inefficiencies and can even add emissions when materials have to be rerouted to another disposal site because they can’t be recycled.

When recycling is presented as a magic bin that can scoop up any range of complex products and produce quality, marketable raw materials, it’s no surprise that people start putting in anything they discard. Single-stream may take in more items, but it doesn’t churn out the same amount of materials that are actually recycled. It’s estimated that 25% of our recycling stream is contaminated. This is a big problem.

There have been a few headlines this year that have suggested recycling is in crisis. This particular alarm has been sparked by China’s National Sword policy which went into effect in 2018, banning 24 material types & requiring a limit of 0.5% contamination on recyclables. For decades, U.S. companies have relied too heavily on companies in China to purchase over a quarter of our recyclables, including our poor quality ones. In the aftermath of this policy, many companies have scrambled to find buyers in other nations, but there has been massive pushback from countries who have returned thousands of tons of plastic waste back to North America. The Basel Convention, which controls the flow of hazardous waste between countries, has even added plastic waste to its list of focus areas, barring overseas sale without permission from the destination country’s government. This shift has caused a huge disruption, but as disruptions tend to do, also presented valuable opportunities. There is now a catalyst driving us to inspect the broken parts of this system so it can better serve larger goals of preventing resource waste and pollution. It’s a daunting process, but it’s also one that is far more in line with the 3 Rs. Let’s not trash recycling – instead, let’s repair it.

Articles citing recycling’s demise do tap into an important truth about recycling: it isn’t exactly working as it should. But this does not mean that recycling can’t work. There is now an opportunity to redesign the recycling system, drive down the use of landfills and incinerators, and manage materials more responsibly. However, redesigning a multi-stakeholder system requires collective engagement. Decisions made at one point have rippling effects that can swell into a monsoon of challenges for other points of the system. Stakeholder groups include government workers, waste haulers, sorting facilities, policy makers, manufacturers, corporate brands, product designers, sales representatives, and more.

Collaboration and accountability are critical to building a better system, but there is a key stakeholder group whose perspective is needed. Individual consumers have been removed from the recycling conversation in many ways, but we are necessary for its function. Yet, many of us don’t understand how recycling works (some have even deemed it more confusing than taxes or the stock market).

We weren’t always so partitioned from the process. After all, it was a series of individuals who organized their own collection drop-off sites for recyclables in neighborhoods, showing governments a demand for recycling services in the 1980s and 90s. It’s also individuals who have urged companies to make goods with recycled materials to close the loop. However, a lack of emphasis on education in many areas and the adoption of single-stream recycling has designed us away from having to think about it. Recycling needs to be accessible for wide participation from all community members. The push to remove any thought from the process has not served us well. A design for waste to be “out of sight, out of mind” lacks incentive to reduce our consumption or question where our discards are delivered.

Research shows that certain communities have been targeted for waste disposal far more than others. In 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard led research on Houston disposal sites at Texas A&M University. Their research found five out of five city-owned landfills, six out of eight incinerators, and three out of four privately owned landfills were located in predominantly Black neighborhoods. This led to the conclusion that even though Black residents comprised 25 percent of the population during the studied time period, 82 percent of all Houston’s waste was dumped in Black neighborhoods. This environmental racism continues today, as a recent report from The New School showed that 79 percent of operating incinerators in the U.S. are located in environmental justice communities. It’s clear that these communities have been long targeted and burdened with the dangerous effects of our consumption and disposal practices.

It’s an unequivocal fact that we need to consume less, but that’s not the entire scope of the issue. When we follow the thread of our massive consumption rates, we find systems designed to make buying and discarding as ritualistic as possible. This is achieved through planned obsolescence, or developing products with a short-term and baked-in end date, and a deluge of marketing attempts to seduce us into buying things we don’t need or even want – and this thread can be traced directly back to the companies churning out products. We all have a responsibility to address waste, but we should be held accountable for matters within our sphere of influence. That influence can expand, but it requires resources and certain privileges to do so. The burden of responsibility to alleviate the harm should be heaviest on those who are causing the most negative impact.

We can use our individual power to push back against wasteful systems, but it takes collective mobilization to uproot and replace them. For example, Taiwan was once fraught with litter and pollution, but has transformed its waste system to be more sustainable and now has one of the highest recycling rates in the world. This was made possible through a multi-stakeholder approach, solid and ambitious government goals, and a transformation in how people handle their waste. The new system has clearly defined roles for each stakeholder group: residents who sort their recyclables; private companies contracted to collect waste; local government providing public collection; and a recycling fund, in which manufacturers fund municipal collection and companies compliant with environmental and social standards. The program is overseen by a board filled with representatives from governments, trade groups, environmental and consumer protection organizations, and academia. There is also a mandatory take-back program in which retailers must provide collection of appliances for responsible disposal. The program uses social norms to make recycling more of a public event, centered around a musical waste truck that collects refuse directly from residents multiple times a day. It collects 13 material types, and the recycling, trash, and compost are all source-separated by residents, with workers available to assist. Taiwan is seeing impressive returns on these changes, which signals the benefits of resident involvement in a process that is accessible for all.

The solutions developed in other countries offer learnings for redesigning recycling in the U.S. Thriving systems require that expectations and roles be clearly communicated. They need to be accessible, transparent, equitable, and serve a circular process. They should have metrics to show progress and track the decline of new resource extraction. They hold the beneficial aspects of the current system, while deepening those strengths and mending the deteriorated parts with threads of new ideas to fit the modern era. Designing a recycling system to meet all these needs is a significant undertaking but can yield powerful and positive impacts. It cannot be achieved by one stakeholder group, although we all have a role in making recycling work as it could. There are three channels that individuals can use to manifest this change.

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 014

Want to learn more from Beth Porter?

Listen to Beth on Jonathan Van Ness’s Getting Curious!

Civic Engagement

Waste issues are inextricably political. Our waste management programs are often managed by local government programs which maintain contracts with waste companies, provide outreach to residents, and work to address waste in residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. The waste we generate has to go somewhere, and the choices we have are typically recycling and (increasingly) compost or landfills and incinerators. We can act through civic engagement to ensure that sustainable, equitable practices are reflected throughout our waste system. We can leverage our role as constituents to urge for national movement along with local change.

Research environmental justice efforts to find groups that you can support. There are many communities fighting landfill and incineration expansion and pushing for solutions. Search for websites, social media groups, or community forums that are discussing these issues to find the best paths to volunteer or donate.

Many government workers are trying to meet varied demands to handle waste. Check your local government’s website to learn about goals to reduce waste and improve recycling and compost services. If you don’t see any publicly, you can send an email to find out what their current priorities are and the best ways for you to get involved.

Visit to find political events in your district. If you’re able to attend, inquire the candidates or elected officials’ sustainability platform. Ask how they plan to take action on waste issues, perhaps through their own legislation or through the Congressional Recycling Caucuses or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Home & Community

For many of us, this is where our waste practices take root. Our homes are often where we begin analyzing our consumption and making changes before taking those learnings out to our community. Powerful change can be sparked by people coming together to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Residents have created drop off points for recycling in areas without adequate services. Neighbors have nurtured systems to shift consumption habits through repair services, tool-sharing, clothing swaps, community gardens, and public libraries. By enhancing our interactions with others around waste issues, we can make positive change while forging stronger bonds and sharing ideas.

Consider the people beyond the bin and use the service responsibly. When we place incorrect items in the bin, we cause costly interruptions to the efficiency of sorting our recyclables. The recycling bin isn’t a second trash can, and the outcomes of those streams are very different.

We need to think of the workers who collect, sort, and process our waste. Waste hauling is the fifth most dangerous job in the nation, and we can support workers by navigating their trucks with extreme caution, extending gratitude for their work, and urging legislators to support initiatives increasing worker safety.

To start reducing, peek in your trash and see what you’re throwing out. Then begin to explore alternatives that generate less waste. This can be a creative and exciting learning process, and there are countless do-it-yourself tips and zero-waste practices online to inspire you.

Become a recycling champion for your home, workplace, or social circles. This means knowing your local guidelines and sharing the information by putting up a poster near your recycling bins or using other communication channels like social media or neighborhood forums. And if your local material recovery facility offers tours, you can organize a group to go see how recyclables are sorted.

Consumer Demand

Recycling is inevitably tied to markets. To reduce the extraction of virgin materials, we need to shift the demand to recycled materials (as well as scale back overall consumption). And it’s essential that accountability be placed where a great deal of it belongs – onto companies. As individuals, we can make sustainable choices if they are accessible to us, which can look different based on the issue and any privileges required to access. If we’re at a store and there are no sustainable options, there’s a ceiling to what we can do in that moment when we need to make a purchase. This is why we need to express demand through a variety of ways.

When going to make a purchase, we can first ask ourselves if it’s something that we need. If the answer is yes, try to buy from businesses that practice real sustainability. We can look for specifics on the company website (i.e., what are the actual materials being used?) and see if they are committed to practices that are good for people and the planet. Look for versions of your product made with recycled content in-store or online before buying. Search resources like to learn about responsible companies.

Recyclable packaging does not necessarily equal a sustainable product that’s made with fair labor and just practices. Redesigning our systems means environmental and social responsibility throughout supply chains, not just in the wrapping. Ask companies to explain how their product is sustainably-made through social media or direct email. Tag companies that you want to do better in social media posts and ask friends to take part.

As individuals, we can do our best to make responsible choices and engage with systems like recycling correctly. But it’s not on us to figure out the details of how a company we don’t work for should improve practices. Support initiatives and policies that drive companies to redesign their own products to work within a more circular system.

No one has all the answers to redesigning recycling and there is not one single solution that will fix its challenges. The need for a range of people to contribute their ideas and perspectives is what makes a complex system more enriched and resilient. And so, if recycling is to be a more effective part of the solution to tackle waste, the time is now and we can all fill a powerful role in its redesign.