Conspiracy theories are for right-wing nuts and doomsday preppers—or so I thought. But a few months ago, I started hearing whispers among my liberal family and friends.

Recycling, they alleged, was a myth. It wasn’t really happening, or it wasn’t really doing any good, according to rumors. A lot of people I knew (a surprising number) speculated that Raleigh was collecting plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and cardboard, only to throw them in a landfill. 

“[Items in Raleigh] are restricted, because nothing else is getting recycled,” alleged one Reddit user. “And even those really aren’t in the U.S. Plastic recycling is a myth.” 

Comments piled up on this post. Most “recyclable” plastics are burned or dumped in the ocean, Raleigh residents said. We used to ship them to China but can’t anymore, they added. Plastic recycling is “a lie from the plastics industry.” 

“I wish more people knew this,” wrote another Raleighite. “To be fair, I only learned about ‘wishcycling’ recently. Those recycle symbols they print on plastics don’t mean much. It’s like companies that put ‘green’ or ‘eco’ in their name. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not.”

This is a conspiracy theory that’s been circulating in the United States for years, and it’s rooted in real facts. As of 2018, only about 8.7 percent of the 35.7 million tons of plastic generated by the United States was recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

In the past few years, news outlets looking into this phenomenon have reported that not only is plastic exorbitantly expensive to recycle, but it can also be reused only once or twice before degrading. With little demand for used plastic products in the global recycling market, most plastic products are incinerated or tossed in landfills (32.6 million tons in 2018, according to the EPA). 

The plastic recycling industry was put under additional pressure in 2018 when China—which had been buying more than half of the world’s used plastic—raised its standards for plastic products and stopped accepting most items. 

Suddenly, cities like Raleigh were scrambling to find a buyer for used plastic, only to find that no one wanted it. Cities and towns were forced to cough up thousands or millions of dollars to continue local recycling programs. In many cases, the additional cost was passed on to residents in the form of higher monthly fees. 

Raleigh managed to avoid raising monthly recycling fees in 2019 by covering the additional $1.5 million cost of its recycling program with money from the general fund. But recycling still costs more today than it did back then. In 2019, Raleigh’s monthly recycling fee was $2.60 per month. In 2023, it’s $4.60 per month. 

Today, some people feel betrayed by recycling. They were told—in many cases by the multimillion-dollar companies that were producing the most plastic—that it was an all-purpose balm for the environment. Worried about global warming? Don’t worry, just recycle. In recent years, however, it’s become apparent that recycling is a very specific, limited process that has been hampered by a shrinking global market. 

“I think [recycling] certain things, like aluminum cans, [is helpful],” says Samantha Thimsen, who was out with her family last week at a North Raleigh park. “I’m like, ‘OK, this is actually being used for something.’ But certain things, I’m like, ‘I don’t really know.’ I just try not to buy things that are plastic to begin with.” 

Is it worth it to recycle?

Thimsen’s take is an accurate one. In the world of recycling, plastics are one of the least valuable materials. In North Carolina, PET plastic (the kind found in disposable water bottles and peanut butter jars) sells for about 14¢ per pound. Colored HDPE plastic (the kind found in milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and juice cartons) sells for about 13¢ per pound. Other plastics, like PP plastics (found in bottle caps and yogurt containers), are essentially worthless.

Aluminum, on the other hand, is worth its weight in U.S. dollars. Loose aluminum cans sell for about 79¢ per pound. Other material, like clear glass (2¢ per pound), office paper (11¢ per pound), and steel cans (8¢ per pound) are less in demand but can be recycled more times than plastic. 

“There’s often a perception that, ‘OK, something is metal, I can recycle it,’” says Maine Johnson, spokesperson for Raleigh’s Solid Waste Services Department. “But [people don’t understand] that a lot of things are based on the marketability and the demand for that item.”

Ultimately, recycling is a mixed bag, especially when it comes to plastic. Only a few types of plastic are really recyclable, primarily PET and HDPE. Other, single-use plastics—like to-go utensils, straws, cups, and styrofoam takeout containers—can’t be processed by recycling plants, according to Melody Foote, a spokesperson for the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ).

But even though recycling plastic is inefficient, it’s not pointless. North Carolina has a high demand for PET, HDPE, and PP plastics, says Foote. There are at least four local companies that use these products, including Clear Path Recycling (which recycles PET plastic), Unifi Manufacturing (which turns PET plastic into yarn), Polywood (which turns HDPE plastic into furniture), and Envision Plastics (which recycles HDPE and PP plastic). 

Plastic bags, films, and wraps—which are typically not recyclable—are also in demand by two nearby companies, Foote says. These items shouldn’t go in your recycling bin but can be turned in for reuse at grocery stores, where they may be sent to Fiberon (in North Carolina) or Trex (in Virginia) to be turned into plastic lumber and outdoor furniture. 

Ultimately, about 80 percent of what you put in your recycling bin will be reused at least once, according to local processing plant Sonoco. The other 20 percent, usually consisting of nonrecyclable items like clothing or batteries, ends up in the landfill. 

The good news is that of those recyclables, the majority stays in the southeastern United States (as opposed to being shipped overseas), says Foote. In 2020, about 34 percent of recyclables went to companies in North Carolina, 22 percent to South Carolina, 24 percent to other southeastern states, and 7 percent to other states across the country. Only about 13 percent of recyclables that year were exported to companies outside the United States, according to Foote. 

So, is recycling worth it? That’s up to you. Tracey Hinton, a North Raleigh nurse, remains frustrated with the process, she says.

“I recycle everything I  can, but it seems like a drop in the bucket,” Hinton wrote in an email to the INDY. “There was so much waste at the hospital. Every patient gets their meds and drinks in a plastic cup and they all go in the garbage every time.”

With all that waste, Hinton remains skeptical of recycling. 

“I’ve taken things to the dump that should have gone in the [recycling bin],” she says. “I wonder what really happens to all the things I put in my container.”

Still, some people argue that recycling some materials is better than not recycling at all. 

“Recycling does slow down the negative effects of waste that accumulate in our landfills,” says Johnson. “Being conscious of how you recycle is going to be much better than discarding everything in the trash can.” 

But at the same time, recycling is only one small piece of the environmental puzzle. Reducing the amount of waste you produce and reusing what you can are two other major components of caring for the Earth. Thimsen, the woman who tries not to buy plastic goods, has the right idea—but she thinks about recycling more than most. 

Other neighbors I spoke with last week didn’t seem to give much thought to recycling, beyond simply doing it when it was convenient. My family and friends regularly use their recycling bins (sometimes to the point of filling them up), but don’t usually consider taking other steps to reduce landfill waste. 

The bottom line is that saving our natural environment requires some inconvenience. It might be easier to drive 10 blocks to a friend’s house, but cycling doesn’t release greenhouse gases. It’s simpler to shop online, but shopping in-store doesn’t result in tons of nonrecyclable packaging. And it’s convenient to put groceries in plastic bags, but reusable totes don’t end up in landfills. 

“We know for a fact that the less items that go into the landfill, the better the outcome is for everyone,” says Johnson. “[But] if you view our environment as a valuable commodity, [people] should consider how they not only dispose of items, but how they purchase items, the reusable factor.” 

“I think for the most part, everybody wants to be a good steward of the environment,” Johnson added. “Often it’s just a matter of doing a little digging to find out what little things can be done to improve this situation for everybody. It’s not one person’s burden, it’s everyone’s burden, to make sure that we preserve the environment, the community, and the planet.”

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