Why American towns are more selective than ever about what they recycle

An ecological silver bullet is missing the target altogether.

Image source: Alba_alioth/Shutterstock
  • The seeming success of worldwide recycling depended on China's now abandoned role.
  • Municipalities are starting to limit the materials they'll recycle, and landfills are growing.
  • The real solution to our waste problem may lie in our past.

The "father of recycling" is a man from Woodbury, New Jersey, named Donald Sanderson. In the 1970s, his local landfill was nearing capacity and costing locals thousands of dollars in fees. Sanderson had an idea, made some calls and found that some of that trash consisted of materials that could be sold instead of dumped. At his urging, Woodbury instituted the first U.S. mandatory curbside recycling program, with separate bins for glass, metal, and paper. (Plastic trash remained simply trash.) In not too long, it became clear that the project was bringing in revenue for the town. Other municipalities around the country soon followed suit.

At this scale, things worked well enough, but the explosion of plastic packaging that began in the 1980s and continues today introduced a new problem that wasn't so simple to solve: Plastic. And there was lots of it. According to Financial Times, the world has produced some "6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste since the 1950s." [our emphasis]

Fortunately, China's manufacturing and export sectors were booming, and that provided a solution. Cargo ships full of Chinese products were arriving at U.S ports and returning home empty, a perfect means of transporting recycled plastic back home for use in the manufacture of even more goods. Great timing for the growing recycling industry.

On the other hand, for consumers, separating out the various recyclables required some effort and time, as well as household space for multiple bins. To bring more citizens into the process, towns began offering "single-stream" recycling. With single-stream, one bin holds all recyclables, and the municipalities or the recyclers with whom they contract are responsible for sorting out the separate materials. Shifting that burden away made recycling less of a hassle for individuals.

The history of recycling

While the tactic worked at getting people to recycle, the single-stream bins have become something of a disaster. People dump pretty much anything into their recycling bins: food-contaminated stuff and other non-reusable items, some of which clogs and breaks recyclers' sorting apparatus. There are tales of toilet bowls, bowling balls, and, yes, even kitchen sinks being found in our blue bins. The bottom line is that facilities receiving single-stream recycling confront a massive, expensive, and sometimes impossible job of sorting everything out. These days, they find themselves confronted with tons and tons of irrevocably contaminated materials that can't be readily sold.

Nonetheless, China remained willing to take this stuff off the hands of U.S recyclers and municipalities. (Still, even at the best of times, only 10 percent of our plastics were actually getting recycled.) China's Operation Green Fence in 2013 served notice that they were getting tired of dealing with all the dirty materials, but the country's patience ended altogether in July 2017, when the Chinese government announced Operation National Sword.

Image source: Larina Marina / Shutterstock

Operation National Sword

China now produces all of the recycled materials it needs domestically. Operation National Sword lays down the law on importing contaminated materials, resulting in a list of 24 types of scrap that China will no longer accept. (Chinese-produced recyclables are now seen as resources, while the same items arriving from overseas are considered yang laji, which translates to "foreign trash.") As Zoe Heller of the California state recycling agency CalRecycle says, China's new policy "challenges us to admit that recycling isn't free."

China's exit from the international recycling stage had the immediate result of prompting other Southeast Asian countries to come forward to take its place, but that trend is already reversing. Malaysia and Thailand have quickly became inundated, and now India has announced they're done with taking plastics.

Particularly hard-hit are Japan — "Now all this trash is building up in Japan and there's nothing to do with it; the incinerators are working at full capacity," says Eric Kawabata of U.S.-based company TerraCycle — and Western countries. The G7 nations account for more that 2/3 of exported paper scrap and the majority of plastic.

Left holding the bag in the U.S. are the many local governments who've enjoyed an easy source of income and now face the prospect of paying for recyclables' removal. Where plastics once sold for in the neighborhood of $300 a ton, municipalities are now facing having to pay to get rid of it. The upshot is that increased landfilling — the problem that led to recycling in the first place — is once again on the rise, and local authorities are now limiting the materials they'll accept to those they can still sell. Vox spoke to environmental expert Kate O'Neill, of UC Berkeley, who succinctly summarizes the current situation, "Oh, the shit's hitting the fan."

Image source: MOHAMED ABDULRAHEEM / Shutterstock

How do we fix this?

Really, this is story about our wasteful habits. If the most difficult material to deal with is plastic, then the thing that most makes recycling not work after 40 years is single-use plastic. It's a habit we've decisively not broken.

While some plastic could be eliminated from packaging and replaced with, say, paper, the real solution lies in adopting more of a "zero waste" mindset. Recology's Robert Reed says, "One of the most important lessons we've learnt from zero waste is that a lot of the solutions are in the past. Just ask yourself, what was it like when your grandparents were alive? They didn't have single-use coffee cups, didn't have water bottles. And yet they survived — thrived, in fact."

While recycling is clearly a sensible idea in broad strokes, maybe China's done us a favor: It's as if we're suddenly waking from a lovely dream in which all the waste we produce can simply be sold and reused.

It's not a panacea. There's simply no substitute for more seriously working to reduce our waste stream.

Image source: Spiroview Inc. / Shutterstock

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Artist rendering of a supervolcano.

Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • The supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park could cause an "ultra-catastrophe," warns an extinction events writer.
  • The full eruption of the volcano last happened 640,000 years ago.
  • The blast could kill billions and make United States uninhabitable.
Keep reading Show less

Ashamed over my mental illness, I realized drawing might help me – and others – cope

Just before I turned 60, I discovered that sharing my story by drawing could be an effective way to both alleviate my symptoms and combat that stigma.

Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

I've lived much of my life with anxiety and depression, including the negative feelings – shame and self-doubt – that seduced me into believing the stigma around mental illness: that people knew I wasn't good enough; that they would avoid me because I was different or unstable; and that I had to find a way to make them like me.

Keep reading Show less

Sexual activity linked to higher cognitive function in older age

A joint study by two England universities explores the link between sex and cognitive function with some surprising differences in male and female outcomes in old age.

The results of this one-of-a-kind study suggest there are significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing/word recall in men.
Image by Lightspring on Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A joint study by the universities of Coventry and Oxford in England has linked sexual activity with higher cognitive abilities in older age.
  • The results of this study suggest there are significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing/word recall in men. In women, however, there was a significant association between sexual activity in word recall alone - number sequencing was not impacted.
  • The differences in testosterone (the male sex hormone) and oxytocin (a predominantly female hormone) may factor into why the male cognitive level changes much more during sexual activity in older age.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…