The US Recycling System Is Garbage (Sierra Magazine, 6/26/19, by Edward Humes) details the many issues in the US’s current recycling system. Most of what you put in the bin doesn’t actually get recycled, and recycling is now coming as a cost to our economy – and it’s all because China stopped accepting our dirty plastics.
Since about 1992, the US has been selling our plastic waste to Asia, namely China, because it is easier and less costly than processing it here. Then, the plastic would be processed under lax environmental conditions, along with much of it being dumped into rivers.
Prior to this offshoring, the US actually had a fairly healthy recycling system. In the ’70s and ’80s, US consumers would clean their recyclables and separate the materials. After we started shipping away this waste, the system deteriorated, as we no longer had to deal with the problem. Nowadays, consumers will throw anything into the recycling bin – from dirty food containers to old furniture.
In 2018, China finally banned imports of dirty foreign garbage. As part of an effort to reduce pollution, they decided to no longer accept poor-quality recyclables from other countries. As a result, this trash instead starting piling up at US ports. And since we had no machinery or infrastructure to deal with it – it lead to what was called a ‘national recycling crisis’.
However, perhaps looking at it as a crisis is all wrong. Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, urges that ” . . . (this) has given us the opportunity to begin investing in the infrastructure we need in order to do it better.”
David Allaway of the Department of Environmental Quality says that instead of blaming China, “we need to recycle better and recycle smarter, which means recycling only when the positive environmental impacts outweigh the negative.” And at the moment, we aren’t achieving that. For instance, Stamford, Connecticut, went from earning $95,000 from its recyclables in 2017 to paying $700,000 in 2018 to get rid of them. Prince George’s County, Maryland, went from earning $750,000 to losing $2.7 million.
So what can you do as a consumer? Martin Bourque from Berkeley’s Ecology Center reminds us that “recycling is supposed to be the last resort after reduction and reuse.” This means you should try to cut back your use of single-use materials as much as possible. And when you do buy something, reuse it as many times as you can. The less that is making it into the bin, the better.
The recycling system in the US may be in disrepair, but that does not mean you should stop trying. Every day you can reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and in our oceans. For more information, please see the full article The US Recycling System Is Garbage from Sierra Club Magazine. If you would like to be involved in local waste reduction efforts, please follow our Facebook page to see upcoming events.