NEW YORK (CBS News) — You’ve heard the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. With bins at home and in your community, it’s likely recycling gets most of your attention, but should it?
The plastics you recycle may end up in a facility. Long conveyor belts at Sims Municipal Recycling in Brooklyn are loaded down with water bottles and produce containers, but also items that should not have been recycled at all. “We get a lot of batteries that we don’t want that can cause fires,” says Tom Outerbridge from Sims Municipal Recycling. Large magnets pull away metal and workers sort out the garbage. Outerbridge says, “At the end of all that effort we still have to send it to a landfill.”
Plastic bags can be the biggest contaminant in a recycling facility because they clog the machines and can slow down the sorting process. Other big no-no’s: straws, coffee cups, plastic cutlery, hard plastic dishes, and plastic with food still inside. But even with the massive bundles of collected plastic that get sold back to manufacturers, only about 9 percent of all plastic ever created has been recycled, according to the American Chemistry Council and the National Association for PET Container Resources.
Experts say all that unrecycled plastic is breaking down into microplastics in our water, soil and air, and people and animals are consuming it.
“Recycling is not the silver bullet that we thought it was going to be, so we have to do something different,” says Angie O’Reilly, who switched to reusable containers for many of her products, like coffee and shampoo. She uses a new service called Loop that includes items from more than a dozen popular brands, sending the containers back when she needs a refill. But she knows even that is not enough. She says, “I would love to see a local drop-off or a place to go to refill your containers rather than shipping them back and forth.”
Experts say “reduce” may well be the most important of the three R’s. Buy only what you know you will use. Upgrade electronics less. Avoid products with excessive packaging and borrow, rent or share items. With less to reuse or recycle, reducing what you consume can bring your carbon footprint down to size.
Many cities around the U.S. have banned plastic bags and many communities are working to phase out single-use plastics, like straws and utensils.