A New Year's Resolution for Us All: Let's Recycle Right

The Importance of Recycling and the Need to Do it Right

Between 15 and 30 percent of what we put in our recycling bins does not belong there. Because of this, the United States has lost the biggest processor of our recycled materials. Under a new set of policies, China will not accept shipments of our recycling material that are more than 0.5 percent impure.
The result?
Recycling costs are skyrocketing for municipalities. China is the world's leading buyer of recycled waste products, and their change in policy is a major set-back for American recycling programs.
How did we get here?
Because we're not recycling right.
The U.S. cannot meet China's new standards unless and until we take the steps necessary to improve how we recycle.
The health of our planet, our communities, and our wallets depends on each one of us being more vigilant about what and how we recycle.
Recycling Right
As individuals, we need to stop contamination. That's the industry term for items that do not belong in the recycling bin or are disposed of in the wrong way. Well-intentioned “aspirational recyclers” contribute to the problem by putting questionable products in the blue bin, hoping they'll be recycled. Containers with food residue, plastic bags, Styrofoam, batteries, tea bags, coffee pods, and other non-recyclable material all contaminate our recycling efforts and make it more difficult for the U.S. to find buyers for reusable waste.
On a larger scale, New York State must undertake a meaningful educational campaign alongside local governments, the waste management industry, and environmental groups. The campaign must focus on educating the public about proper recycling and demystify what happens once waste and recycling leaves the curb. This campaign should explain why some items are recyclable and others are not. Local implementation is key because the list of accepted commodities varies by municipality.
Global problems can feel overwhelming, but in this case we can all make an impact. As individuals, we can recycle right and be mindful of our own contributions to the waste stream. Each of us have a role to play - let's make 2019 the year we take action.
New York's county governments and the New York League of Conservation Voters remain committed to improving sustainable waste management practices throughout our state.
Stephen Acquario is the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) Executive Director and Julie Tighe is the President of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV). Visit and for more information.

Versions of this post have appeared as op/ed pieces in newspapers across New York State.