An ecological silver bullet is missing the target altogether.
- 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
China's expanding middle class is changing the world. The results are a global recycling dilemma.
Most of us don’t think of what happens to the plastic items we put in the recycling bin. It’s a matter of out of sight, out of mind. Some believe manufacturers turn them all into new products, but is that the case? What really happens after that plastic bottle leaves your hand? In truth, only 9.5% of all plastic in the U.S. is recycled. Surprisingly, 15% is burned for electricity or heat.
About one-third is exported. Of that, half ends up in China, but not for long. The rest goes to landfills, where it can take up to 500 years to breakdown. As it does, it turns into toxins which poison our land and water. Over time, a lot of our plastic makes its way into the ocean—8.8 million tons of it enter our oceans every year, to be exact. By then, it’s become microplastics, tiny beads mere millimeters long. These are a significant threat to the environment and are also very difficult to clean up.
Pretty soon, America may be putting a lot more of its own plastic into landfill. Beginning January 1, 2018, China plans to ban the import of yang laji or “foreign garbage,” including certain plastics and other materials that are unable to be recycled. The ban was filed this summer with the World Trade Organization. Beijing has listed 24 waste products that it says are a threat to China’s environment and public health.
As of Jan. 1, China is banning the importation of "foreign garbage." Credit: Getty Images.
As a manufacturing powerhouse, China has imported waste materials from other countries to help fuel its economic rise for several decades. It turned these plastics from abroad into resin, which was made into carpeting, plastic bottles, pipes, and all other manner of items. But now, a robust Chinese middle class with more Westernized consumption habits produce enough material to fill China’s needs from within.
As such, Beijing filed its ban with the WTO last July, which includes certain plastics, textiles, and mixed paper. It isn’t only America that’ll have to make other arrangements. China is the world’s biggest importer of such waste. It took in 7.3 million metric tons of plastic last year. This accounts for 51% of the world’s total plastic scrap.
The West Coast of the US has been particularly hard hit. In many cases, recyclers have nowhere to put these materials. Some operations are hauling them off to landfill to dump. Steve Frank of Pioneer Recycling in Portland, Oregon, told NPR that once China shuts down operations completely, it’ll become a serious problem. "The rest of the world cannot make up that gap,” he said.
Hopes for an End to Plastic
Rather than burning plastic refuse and contributing to global warming, storing it until a market opens up, or sending it to the landfill, many in recycling and environmental sciences believe this could be a watershed moment where we finally change our relationship with plastic. Bans on disposable plastic are one route. Some cities, states, and even whole countries are banning plastic bags, for example, producing or selling plastic bags is now illegal in Kenya, with a fine of $40,000 as a consequence. An awareness campaign to steer consumers away from plastic and toward other, more sustainable options might also make an impact.
Many believe it’s time for us to change our relationship with consumer plastics. Credit: Getty Images.
The U.S. Response? Produce More Plastic
Rather than a problem, the U.S. chemical industry may see it as an opportunity, at least somewhere down the line. One solution for all this waste nobody wants, is to break down discarded plastic into its chemical components for use by the petroleum industry. Others such as aviation, transportation, and food packaging might also find uses.
The U.S. fracking boom has made natural gas incredibly cheap for the moment, which makes the U.S. one of the cheapest places in the world to produce plastic. The chemical industry is looking to capitalize, investing $185 billion to expand its capacity, according to the American Chemistry Council. Four new U.S. plastics plants will be operational by the end of 2017. The industry is planning to produce and ship high quality resin to China for profit, as the nation is shifting to a preference for "virgin" plastics, rather than plastic scrap that must be cleaned, processed, and so on. Ultimately this means more plastic in the world, not less, as profit opportunities are prioritized over long-term consequences.
What Can You Do?
Look at what plastic you buy and throw out on a daily or weekly basis and try to replace those items with sustainable alternatives. For instance, opt for reusable water bottles, sandwich bags, food storage bags, shopping bags, and other such things. When it’s time to buy something, try to purchase items made from natural materials such as bamboo, wood, cloth, or glass.
Repurpose and reuse as many things as possible before throwing them away (if you must). Remember the mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. And check with your town’s department of public works about what items are and aren’t recyclable. Though we assume so, not all plastic is. In fact, many aren’t. To find out which is which, click here.
Lastly, write to three (or more) of your favorite brands, restaurants, or cafes and ask them to change their packaging to use less plastic. Let them know it is important to you, and encourage friends and family to do the same. Evolving habits and consumer pressure matters to companies that want to remain competitive.
Should we shoot our garbage into space and solve the problem that way? See what Bill Nye thinks: