Where Does All That Recycling Go?

March 6, 2019
China’s recent ban on the import of recyclables means a lot of U.S. recyclables that once went there are now ending up in other Asian nations. Pictured is a waste facility in Java, Indonesia, in 2016, where recylables were sorted and loaded onto a motorcycle. Photo: Adam Cohn, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Where Does All That Recycling Go?

For most people, it’s enough of a struggle to get the trash and recycling out to the curb. They generally give little thought to what happens to it after that.

But the destiny of all those meticulously separated “recyclables” is probably something your audience should know, and a story worth looking into for any environmental journalist working at the local or regional level.


Back story

Recyclables came back in the news in a big way when at the beginning of 2018, China banned imports of virtually all recyclable plastic and paper. It turned out that a lot of U.S. waste had been going to China, and now it had to go somewhere else.

Some is ending up in other Asian nations. Some is being incinerated here — often causing air pollution.


While there is a federal law that

regulates waste disposal, there is

no federal law that mandates

or regulates recycling.


While there is a federal law that regulates waste disposal, there is no federal law that mandates or regulates recycling. The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, regulates landfills so that they don’t pollute and sets even tighter restrictions on disposal of hazardous wastes.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s programs for recycling are primarily educational and voluntary. Their motto is: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Most U.S. recycling programs are set up under state law or local ordinance. Their main purposes are reducing the amount of trash that goes into municipal landfills and keeping hazardous wastes out of the conventional landfills.


Story ideas

Be aware of the vast differences in local and regional waste-handling and recycling programs. Dense urban areas will be very different than remote rural areas.

Also be aware of the many different kinds of waste that people and municipalities deal with — yard waste, kitchen waste, building materials, etc.

The basic drill is to figure out what your state and local waste management agencies are, and then to learn about them and to interrogate them.

Pro Tip No. 1: Trash is often controversial. Search the back issues of local media to find out what people are already fussing about. Siting landfills is a big one.

Pro Tip No. 2: Don’t automatically assume that anything with the word “recycling” in its name is environmentally beneficial. Some waste oil “recycling” operations have ended up as Superfund hazardous waste sites (here's one example).

The key question is: “Where does it go?” The answer will (or should) vary according to the kind of waste.

  • Are yard waste and leaves being composted? Is the composted product sold or given away? Is it contaminated?
  • Does your community have an incinerator? What goes into it? What emissions come out of it? Are there records? Who lives nearby or downwind?
  • Are recyclables collected separately from trash in your community? Are they separated into different streams? Do the streams stay separate? Is it handled by a contractor?
  • What happens to your paper recyclables? How strict is your municipality about what goes in? Greasy pizza boxes? Foil gift wrap? Can your municipality sell paper waste? To whom? What do they do with it?
  • How are glass and metal separated? Where and by whom? What happens to those streams? Are they sold? To whom? What happens then?
  • What happens to plastic waste? Is it recycled? Is it sorted? What kinds of plastic are accepted and what kinds are not? What are the categories? What happens to single-use bags? Is the waste sold? To whom? What happens after that?
  • Are there any special programs for food waste in your area? Do people compost? Are there commercial composting services for restaurants? Are there programs for safely transferring unused food to community kitchens?
  • Does your community have effective programs for handling special wastes like discarded electronics and unused pesticides?


Reporting resources

Your local city or county waste management agency will be the most important source. Find some contacts there and build relationships.

Very likely your local waste-handling facility (we don’t say “dump” anymore) will allow you to visit, if only to drop off special wastes. Do it and be observant. In fact, be nosy.

Find out what laws and agencies regulate waste disposal in your state, and become familiar with the special issues in your state.

Here are a few more resources:

  • The EPA offers a lot of information about waste-management and recycling.
  • The Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, or ASTSWMO, represents state waste agencies, including those managing hazardous waste. It lobbies for state interests.
  • The Paper Recycling Coalition promotes paper recycling and represents industry interests. It tends to advocate the environmental benefits of recycling, but oppose government regulation of the industry.
  • The Glass Recycling Coalition represents the glass recycling industry, and offers best practices and collection models.
  • The Association of Plastic Recyclers represents the interests of the post-consumer plastics industry.
  • The National Waste & Recycling Association is another waste industry lobbying and education group.
  • Keep America Beautiful is an unusual hybrid group that is a lot more than just an anti-littering front. It includes state agencies, corporations and nonprofit environmental groups. It’s useful as a portal to recycling groups at the state and local levels.
  • Recycling Today is a print and online trade magazine that’s helpful in following industry trends. It’s subscription-based, but much of its content is open.
  • BioCycle is a print and online publication covering many aspects of composting and management of organic wastes.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 10. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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