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We’re recycling but garbage keeps piling up: What you may not know about the recycling industry

Recycling is being called into question as landfills keep growing.

When Chip Britting celebrated the first Earth Day in April 1970, the then-teenager saw recycling as a promising industry and went on to create a community-led recycling center in Phelps, New York with his teacher. Now, 50 years later, some are calling the efficacy of recycling into question as landfills keep growing with items people put into blue and green bins.


The system is complicated by a number of issues the recycling public may not be aware of.


As a current volunteer at the nonprofit Ravalli County Recycling in Hamilton, Montana, Britting has seen the industry evolve from a small localized effort into a massive corporate endeavor -- and one heavily dependent on global markets.


With this transformation has come a new set of challenges – namely, increased doubt in the system by citizens who recycle. But the distrust does not come out of the blue, Britting said.


“Back when it first started, people were optimistic about recycling. It was a catalyst for change,” he remarked. “Today, people are putting things in bins, and the materials disappear. Everyone thinks they’re being recycled, but recycling is a market-driven industry.”


Recycling grew from just 6% of the waste stream in the 1960s to 35% in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA touts the benefits of recycling including reducing waste, conserving energy as well as creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. And municipalities like Cincinnati, Allentown, Pennsylvania and Omaha, Nebraska have increased their commitment to recycling.


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