The dirty secret about recycling: Most stuff that could be recycled isn’t

And why it’s smart to use fewer disposables, no ­matter what bin you put them in.

pile of recycling mixed with garbage
Humans buy a million plastic bottles a minute, and at least one-quarter never make their way into recycling bins.Pixabay

The EPA’s most recent census of U.S. waste tallied 262.4 million tons of new junk in 2015—the weight of about 40 Pyramids of Giza, ​or 4.5 pounds per person per day. We can recycle about one-​­quarter of what we toss, but rising costs and trade issues mean some municipalities no longer bother. Even in places that still attempt to keep trash out of landfills and oceans, not all “recyclable” items end up renewed. Here’s how much of that stuff actually makes it back into circulation—and why it’s smart to use fewer disposables, no ­matter what bin you put them in.

Plastic plates and cups: 0%
Plastic plates and cups
Most discarded dinnerware is made of polystyrene resin. It’s so cumbersome (bulky, but light enough to blow away) that no curbside pickups take it. We make use of 24 percent by burning the junk and converting its heat into electricity, but not for making new frat-party cups.illustration by Radio
Disposable diapers: 0%
Disposable diapers
Your baby’s butt might be adorable, but its ­environmental impact stinks. We burn some for energy, but dirty nappies contain too many kinds of materials—wood pulp, plastic, poop—for cost-effective recycling. Consider cloth so your kid can grow up on a cleaner planet.illustration by Radio
Milk and water bottles: 30%
Milk and water bottles
Humans buy a million plastic bottles a minute, and at least one-quarter never make their way into recycling bins—let alone back into consumer products. They do, however, wind up in our stomachs. Yup: Fish, mussels, and even sea salt can contain microplastics.illustration by Radio
Tires: 40%
Tires
Tire recycling has increased ninefold since 1970, due in part to demand for things like ­asphalt and squishy playground mulch. Thank goodness, because piles of used treads can contaminate water, become habitats for ­disease-​­spreading insects, and even explode.illustration by Radio
Aluminum cans and foil: 55%
Aluminum cans and foil
Some soda cans inevitably wind up in the trash, but a cola vessel is about as salvageable as disposable objects get. About 70 percent of the cans come from recycled material, and almost 75 percent of all the aluminum ever put in circulation is still in use today.illustration by Radio
Newspapers: 72%
Newspapers
You read it here first: Humans reuse or make ­energy from the majority of old newspapers. And, unlike plastic trash, these products aren’t a growing concern: The amount we make has fallen by more than half since 2000. Good news for trees; bad news for print journalism.illustration by Radio

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 Make It Last issue of Popular Science.