Litter in Our Waterways, Recycling Slow-down, What Now?

With some recycling programs slowing down, what is the future for litter in our waterways and what can be done?

Litter in Our Waterways, Recycling Slow-down, What Now?
Runoff from streets and sidewalks can add to water pollution. (Photo: J. Fetter – Penn State)

Earth Day always brings great opportunities to participate in litter clean-ups and recycling programs across the United States. In fact, the advent of Earth Day and household recycling really go hand-in-hand in US history books. However, trash and recycling have been in the news a lot lately in the United States for some not so great reasons.

We still have a serious problem with trash making its way into our waterways. Litter in our streets can clog stormdrains and lead to flooding. And plastics are accumulating in our waterways, causing many long-term issues. Even if you take care to properly dispose of your waste, a windy day can overturn just about any trashcan. There are lots of other ways for trash to end up in the wrong place, it’s not just intentional littering.

Also an emerging issue, many US recycling programs are seeing a significant slow-down and reduction recently. Changing overseas markets for recyclables and the decreasing cost of raw materials are both having an impact on the decreased demand for America’s recyclable materials.

Many people have been looking for ideas on how to reduce their garbage footprint, especially now that their curbside and office recycling programs have reduced what they will accept. Here are some ideas that you might consider trying this year.


Maybe you are already setting your kitchen scraps aside for the compost heap, or maybe composting is all new to you. For the sake of reducing your household waste, composting is a great way to use up paperboard boxes that many recycling centers no longer take. A lot of people are used to recycling cereal boxes and paper towel tubes, but now many recycling centers only accept corrugated cardboard (the kind with the waffle-like layer between two surfaces.) You can tear up paperboard into smaller pieces and add it to your compost. It helps to get it wet first so that it has a head start breaking down in your compost pile. Paper and paperboard count as “browns” in your pile.Many people don’t get enough “browns” when they only compost fruit and veggie scraps (“greens”). It’s recommended that you actually have 30 times more brown volume than green for efficient composting. You might also find that many of the disposable items you have been buying now come in compostable forms such as straws, picnic supplies, and even six-pack rings.


You know the slogan, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” We are new to the idea, but now is a good time to remember those reusable grocery bags when you head out the door to go shopping. (Maybe even keep an emergency bag or two in the car if you tend to make unscheduled shopping trips on your way home from work or other errands. Reusable water bottles are also nothing new, but there are more options than ever out there. Reusable water bottles also seem to be the promotional item of choice at so many events that by now you probably have enough to keep one in every convenient place (on your desk, in your car, in your gym bag.) There are also a large array of new reusable products on the market to consider, like plastic zip-top storage bags, sandwich wraps, produce bags, and bowl covers.

Don’t Buy Waste:

Single serving sized portions are great for lunchboxes or grabbing a snack on the go, but they also generate a lot of waste. A lot of recycling programs are also no longer taking plastic cups, tubs, and containers, restricting plastic recycling to only narrow neck bottles and jugs. Buying bulk foods (bring your own container) or larger sizes and dividing them up into smaller reusable containers can go a long way to reduce the amount of waste you have to deal with. You can even manage your own portion control this way, since not every single-serving product is truly a recommended healthy portion. You might also find that some products come with unnecessary extra layers of packaging (bags inside of a box when just the box or just the bag will do.) Consider how much waste a product will make before you buy it and have all of that packaging at home to deal with.

There are lots of other great ideas out there, and maybe not all of them are for you or your family. One thing is for certain, we definitely do not have to send everything to the landfill or incinerator. Try something new to help reduce the amount of trash you generate and to help keep our waterways clean.

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