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On America Recycles Day, don't forget the other Rs: reduce and reuse

blue recycling bin

On this America Recycles Day, some in the industry are encouraging people to remember "recycle" comes third in the phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" for a reason.

"Recycling is not the answer to everything, you actually have to worry about the reduce and reuse first," points out Colleen McSwiggin, managing director for the Cincinnati Recycling and Reuse Hub. "Recycling is kind of the stopgap for the things that don't have another place to go."

Don't get the wrong idea — this is not your sign to stop recycling. It's an important way to keep excess waste out of landfills and the environment.

"While we know its benefits, recycling is at a crossroads today in many parts of this country. Too many Americans are uncertain about what materials can or should be recycled. Municipalities have trouble finding markets for their recycled waste," states President Joe Biden in a proclamation announcing Tuesday as America Recycles Day.

Rumpke has beenincreasing the kinds of items it accepts for recycling. The Cincinnati Recycling and Reuse Hub takes recycling to a higher level, accepting all kinds of things that can't (or at least shouldn't) go in your curbside bin.

"Things like Styrofoam, we can take that all day and we've sent out over seven semitrailers of it," lists McSwiggin. "Then there's just other oddball things: we can take empty toothpaste tubes; we can take empty deodorant containers; we can take denim and that can be recycled into insulation for houses."

Since opening in April 2021, McSwiggin says the Recycling and Reuse Hub has kept 180 tons out of the landfill. That figure includes over 80 tons of electronics. She estimates over 60 tons has been sent for reuse or passed on to other nonprofits — eyeglasses to the Lions Club or pill bottles to Matthew 25 Ministries, for example.

"One hundred eighty tons is a lot. I think I figured out it's more than 10 times the combined weight of the four elephants at the zoo," she says.

Beyond recycling, McSwiggin encourages people to utilize reusable containers and look for items that come in cardboard packaging, for example, rather than plastic, or have less excess plastic packaging.

It's hard to find places that take all your recyclables. It can be equally difficult to find buyers for recyclable material, and there are currently limits on how many times materials can go through the recycling process.

A Greenpeace report released in October found startling numbers of materials are still ending up in landfills. It notes way more plastic is being produced than is being recycled into new items.

Also, NPR reports, "separate data published this May which (reveals) that the amount of plastic actually turned into new things has fallen to new lows of around 5%. That number is expected to drop further as more plastic is produced."

Lisa Ramsden, senior plastic campaigner for Greenpeace USA tells NPR, "More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and without drastic change will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050."

Rumpke's Molly Yeager notes the company got a lot of calls from customers after the Greenpeace report came out. She says they wanted to know "whether the plastics they put in the recycling bin are actually recycled. The answer is absolutely yes. All of the plastics that we accept in our program — bottles, jugs, tubs and cups (not the colored party cups) have an end user that we have fully vetted and have a long-term contract in place."

Here are some additional 'fun facts' from Rumpke for America Recycles Day:

  • Rumpke recycles 1 billion pounds annually – Paper and cardboard make up the largest portion of what our customers recycles – representing 60% of the recycling stream.
  • Rumpke operates 12 recycling facilities
  • Rumpke is investing more than $50 million in the next two years into recycling infrastructure
  • Rumpke’s Cincinnati recycling facility uses advanced technology including optical scanners and AI robotics to help sort material
  • 95% of the material Rumpke recycles stays within a 250-mile radius of our recycling facilities and 80% stays within Ohio.
  • Recycling an aluminum can saves enough energy to power a television for 3 hours
Corrected: November 15, 2022 at 12:02 PM EST
This story has been updated to say 80 tons, not 8 tons, of electronics have been recycled by the Cincinnati Recycling and Reuse Hub since its inception.
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.