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Transforming Trash: Top Strategies to Improve Waste Sorting in the USA

The lack of information perceived by users despite major communication efforts could explain part of the results observed during the last EPA report, carried out in 2022. 25% of packaging and paper remained in household waste, characterized as residual waste, yet they were targeted by the sorting instructions.

Added to this is also a stagnation in the sorting refusal rate which is around 20%, it was 17% in 2013. And this problem is not just American either, for example in Belgium in 2018 the sorting error rate was 16% for households and 22% for businesses. Belgium has information channels are similar to American channels.

In Canada, sorting rejections were 11.4% in 2018, this country also seems to throw more recyclables into household waste. Furthermore, according to the EPA, the collection method would not really have an influence on this rate: overall, we do not highlight any general trend between door-to-door collection and voluntary contribution. The differences are not significant and their meaning depends on the patterns and environments.

Several solutions have already been proposed to improve the quantity sorted for packaging and graphic papers, in order to improve waste management practices in the USA:

  • simplification via the harmonization and extension of sorting instructions in the USA by 2025 and the application of identical bin colors in the country
  • the deployment of incentive pricing provided for in the energy transition law for green growth of 2015 targeting 150 million inhabitants covered by this method of financing by 2025
  • the increase in the cost of TGAP for landfilling and incineration by 2025
  • harmonization of collection schemes.

Among the three main schemes, the multi-material scheme is the majority and growing in the country, followed by the packaging/paper scheme and finally the paper-cardboard (fibrous)/plastics-metals (non-fibrous) scheme. The rejection quantities tend to be slightly larger (around 5%) in the case of the multimaterial scheme.

Improving waste management practices

We need a densification of the territorial network of sorting solutions. This is planned via the deployment of out-of-home sorting made compulsory with the federal law, the installation of deposit-deposit machines (also called Reverse Vending Machine), or even the deployment of additional voluntary drop-off points.

This densification strategy seems contradictory with the 2018 resources plan which aims to reduce the material footprint per inhabitant in the United States, thus improving sustainability.

The obligation to apply federal law (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) on the sorting of 5 waste streams (paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, glass, wood) made to businesses and administrations. Moreover, among this enumeration, several of the elements indicated above are taken up by the Cercle National du Recyclage as proposals to “achieve the recycling objectives and the collection objectives for plastic drink bottles” (Cercle National du Recycling, 2020).

A logical increase in waste sorting errors

Will these solutions make it possible to quantitatively increase the flow of sorted waste and reduce the use of dumpster rentals? Probably yes (and in some places this is already the case). Moreover, the EPA predicted in a report that between 2020 and 2030, the tonnage of light packaging (excluding glass) and graphic papers would increase by 20%. Will these solutions make it possible to qualitatively increase the flow of sorted waste? probably not.

Sorting refusals are higher by one to two percentage points when sorting instructions are extended, even though this experiment was launched 10 years ago. An increase could occur in sorting refusals linked to the voluntary or unintentional nesting of new small packaging to be sorted (pods, small films, etc.) in other larger packaging (bags and sachets, pots, boxes, etc.). Voluntary nesting would respond to a logic of saving space for the sorter given the increasing volume of packaging to be sorted with the extension of sorting instructions.

This logic of voluntary nesting could also be explained in the face of the increasing quantity of food units that consumers buy. Thus, via nesting, the sorter would limit the increasing space taken up by packaging in its living space and in its bin and would thus limit exits from the bin for collection.

A 2004 study demonstrated that space constraints were the first disadvantage of sorting cited by the people observed. By nesting the packaging, the sorter limits the space used by the pre-collection systems at home (bin, bag, etc.). These techniques make it possible to fight against packaging deemed to be invaders.

In 2000, 20% of people questioned by an opinion survey considered packaging to be an invader, this was 46% in 2007. What’s more, the fragmentation of households is favorable to the arrival of smaller packages because the size of households is decreasing, and more than a third of people live alone in the United States. Also, large packages are more common in large families than in other households.

What’s more, these voluntary nestings can make it possible to escape institutional control of sorting quality thanks to opaque packaging such as cardboard boxes, bags of chips, etc. These nesting sorting errors cannot be avoided by any technology in sorting centers (spectrometry, near-infrared spectrometry, eddy current machines, mid-infrared thermography, etc). Only human reflection can counter this a priori.

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