The truth about trash in America

While recycling remains important, it's not enough. We need to change the way we talk about waste.

Buckhorn Mesa landfill

An update from Faye Park, executive vice president of The Public Interest Network

OCT. 29, 2021

We need to change the way we talk about waste.

While recycling remains important, it’s not enough. We can’t keep producing and consuming more and more things we can’t or don’t recycle — and we certainly can’t continue to allow companies to mislead us about what is being recycled.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom advanced this conversation by signing into law a CALPIRG-supported bill requiring manufacturers to apply the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol only to recyclable products. This step toward transparency in recycling may help Californians come to grips with the knowledge that less than 15% of single-use plastic in the state actually gets recycled.

Days before the adoption of California’s Truth in Recycling Law, The Public Interest Network’s flagship groups, PIRG and Environment America, jointly released “Trash in America,” a report confirming what Americans increasingly understand: As recently as 2018, more than 91% of our discarded plastic ends up dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators, not recycled. Rather than keep throwing out enough plastic to fill the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium every 15.5 hours, we simply should stop making so much of it.

In some places, we’re finding our way toward reducing plastic waste. Upon seeing viral clip after viral clip of animals harmed or killed by plastic debris, Americans’ unease gave rise to Environment America’s Wildlife Over Waste campaign, which since 2016 has helped secure statewide bans on single-use plastic bags in 11 states and single-use foam food containers in seven states.

It’s not just plastic, either. Rather than sending tech products such as laptops and phones back to the manufacturer for “recycling” and then purchasing new ones, more and more Americans are seeing the wisdom in fixing what they’ve already got.

PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign is about winning access to the parts and information Americans need to keep their tech in use and out of the waste stream. And on the heels of President Biden’s summer executive order initiating the breakup of the tech manufacturer monopoly on repair of cell phones, tractors and more, we’re thrilled to see Microsoft answer the calls of PIRG, As You Sow and other allies by unveiling an important new commitment to repair access for its product line.

Most heartening of all is seeing “producer responsibility” policies gain traction in the public debate; this summer, Maine and Oregon both adopted laws shifting the cost of cleaning up plastic trash onto the corporations that create it. Reducing waste by disincentivizing its production in the first place beats worrying about what to do with it once it’s here.

We’re doing all we can to change the conversation about waste, but there’s still a mountain of work ahead. “Trash in America” maps out a path forward, covering the whole of our system of continuous material extraction, manufacture, consumption and waste disposal. At each point where Americans’ lived experiences collide with this unsustainable system — from plastic packaging to fast fashion — PIRG and Environment America will be campaigning for solutions that prioritize reducing waste, that make reuse and repair easy and accessible, and yes, that promote recycling too, wherever appropriate. (We’ll always be big fans of the Bottle Bill container deposit laws we helped win starting way back in the 1970s, which have boosted recycling rates for cans and bottles in 10 states.)

Thanks are due to Gov. Newsom, California Sen. Ben Allen and leaders at Microsoft for your contributions to sustainability. And thank you for all you do to help America become a zero waste society.

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