by Dan Israel, SVP of Growth
Plastic recycling has been in the news recently, and it’s not positive coverage. Although recycling bins are present in the majority of homes across the country, research from the groups Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup estimate that Americans recycled just six percent of their plastics in 2021, which is a drop from nearly nine percent in 2018.
We wanted to explore the reasons why investments in food scrap recycling can make a more immediate impact than investments in current plastics recycling initiatives. In short, food scrap recycling is far more efficient than plastics recycling, it impacts a bigger portion of the waste stream, and it’s less complicated.
Food waste makes up a larger percentage of the waste stream. According to EPA data for 2018, the most recent year available, food waste makes up more than 21.5% of the trash that people throw out, as compared to just over 12% for plastics. That makes the food waste 75% bigger contribution to our nation’s trash. When combined with other organic waste that can be composted such as yard trimmings and wood, the total is more than three times that of plastics in the waste stream.
A much higher percentage of food waste can actually be recycled. Almost 100% of organic waste can be processed into compost, a nutrient-rich soil amendment with the ability to aid in the fight against climate change, food insecurity, and even drought. As you can see from the latest data cited above, a dramatically lower percentage of plastics are getting recycled. Many types of plastics, such as those labeled with a #6 or #7 cannot be recycled anywhere in this country.
Food scrap composting is much more straightforward than plastic recycling. A simple way to remember what can be composted is the expression “If it grows, it goes.” While you may opt to keep a few items out of your compost to reduce messiness, close to 100% of the food scraps you generate can be recycled into compost. Compare that to plastic recycling, where people have to know which numbers can be recycled in their neighborhood, which often varies from place to place. Some plastic is not properly labeled, and sometimes it’s hard to read even when it is labeled. It’s no wonder that only a small percentage of plastic actually gets recycled.
And that’s not all. Food waste and other organics are infinitely recyclable into compost. On the other hand, because recycling plastic decreases its quality, plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before it is no longer accepted for recycling.
Having made the case for the advantages of composting, it’s a wonder that plastics recycling has been prioritized well ahead of composting. Roughly 27% of the biggest cities in the country have access to composting (source: GreenBlue), while close to 90% of homes have access to some form of plastic recycling (source: Sustainable Packaging Coalition). We encourage governments across the country to consider expanding their investment in composting programs to get more people diverting their food waste from the trash.