8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

The 25 Best Colleges in America

Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images
Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images

The college decision process is always a tough one, but review site Niche's annual rankings of the best colleges in America make it easier for prospective students (and their parents) to narrow down the choices to find the best fit. The 2020 list takes a variety of factors into account, including student life, admissions, finances, and student reviews. But the most important factor in their methodology, comprising 40 percent of a school's overall rating, is academics, which, according to the Niche website, looks at "acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school."

Taking the number one spot on Niche's list for the second year in a row is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Stanford University in the number two spot (again, for the second year in a row). Six of America's eight Ivy League schools made it into the top 10.

Here are the 25 Best Colleges in America for 2020, according to Niche's rankings.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology // Cambridge, MA

  1. Stanford University // Stanford, CA

  1. Yale University // New Haven, CT

  1. Harvard University // Cambridge, MA

  1. Princeton University // Princeton, NJ

  1. Duke University // Durham, NC

  1. Brown University // Providence, RI

  1. Columbia University // New York, NY

  1. University of Pennsylvania // Philadelphia, PA

  1. Rice University // Houston, TX

  1. Northwestern University // Evanston, IL

  1. Vanderbilt University // Nashville, TN

  1. Pomona College // Claremont, CA

  1. Washington University in St. Louis // St. Louis, MO

  1. Dartmouth College // Hanover, NH

  1. California Institute of Technology // Pasadena, CA

  1. University of Notre Dame // Notre Dame, IN

  1. University of Chicago // Chicago, IL

  1. University of Southern California // Los Angeles, CA

  1. Cornell University // Ithaca, NY

  1. Bowdoin College // Brunswick, ME

  1. Amherst College // Amherst, MA

  1. University of Michigan // Ann Arbor, MI

  1. Georgetown University // Washington DC

  1. Tufts University // Medford, MA

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