the truth about recycling #1: recycling is not the answer

Author: Sarah Atkinson

In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China.

In 2013, after years of accepting much of the world’s recyclable waste, China made its first move to dissuade the U.S. and other countries from continuing this practice by strictly enforcing inspection standards for all recyclables entering China, in an effort to reduce the amount of contaminated waste.

Contamination: anything that ends up in the recycling that cannot actually be recycled, including: dirty peanut jars, pizza boxes, old clothes, envelopes with plastic windows, plastic bags, brightly-colored paper; the list goes on and on.

Chinese manufacturers, who purchase recyclables to process for raw materials, had for years chastised the U.S. and other countries for the amount of contamination present in their exports.

Managing recycling contamination comes at a high-cost as separating non-recyclable waste from recyclable waste is rarely economically efficient. Recyclables are bought and sold internationally, meaning that the value a recycling collector can fetch per ton fluctuates greatly depending on global trade.

Sadly, the value for most types of recyclables has dropped dramatically in recent years. For example, one year ago a recycling collector could fetch $100/ton for paper recycling, today that value has fallen to $5/ton.  

To protect these manufacturers from the high costs of managing this waste, the Chinese government placed financial burdens back on shippers and recyclers that were delivering contaminated waste.

In the first year, China rejected nearly 22,000 containers of contaminated recycling.

Where did that rejected recycling end up? The landfill.

The result: American and European recyclers entered the 21st century with upgraded facilities fashioning new equipment and increased manpower to curb the percentage of contaminated materials sent to China by separating out most non-recyclable materials domestically.  

With these advancements, China continued to process at least half of the world’s exports of waste paper, plastic and metals. Unfortunately, with the falling global price of recyclables, China is currently enforcing even stricter contamination standards, rejecting recycling imports found to have more than 0.05% contamination, a percentage that few recyclers can reach.  

Following these new standards, China has proposed a total ban on solid waste imports to be implemented by 2020. Studies predict that 120 million tons of plastic waste will be displaced (and likely not recycled) worldwide by 2030 with this policy change, due to the world’s dependence on China to recycle these materials.

What now? Without China to process our waste, many U.S. recyclers have begun stockpiling thousands of pounds of recyclable materials in the hopes of finding a new market, and fast. Others have been forced to send recycling straight to the landfill.  

And still others have started sending this waste to India and Vietnam.

But none of these pathways are a solution. We cannot afford to stockpile recycling, we do not have the space to send more materials to landfills, and India and Vietnam will never be able to accept as much of our waste as China once did, nor will they want to if the value of recyclable materials continues to drop.

And, is it even environmentally sustainable or ethical to be shipping this waste around the world?

So, what can we do? As producers of waste, we must begin to re-examine our consumption habits and acknowledge that we must do more than just recycle. Reaching zero waste is not just about reducing the waste you send to landfill, it’s about reducing your consumption and production of waste across the board, whether that be landfill waste, recyclable waste, compostable waste, energy, etc.

If moving towards a circular economy is the end goal, most recyclable products, especially plastics that can only be recycled a finite number of times (more on that in another post), need to be phased out just like the use of products that must be sent to the landfill.

Follow @zerologywaste on Instagram for tips on how to jump start your path towards zero waste.

“Just because you’re recycling doesn’t mean you’re absolved of your environmental footprint on the Earth.”
— Dominique Mosbergen