Update: Recycling Isn’t Working

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Here’s an update on a post that I wrote at the beginning of the year about how China has upended the way recycling works. In short, Americans recycle as much as 66 million tons of would-be waste each year, the majority of which used to go to China. However, as part of a new policy aimed at improving its own environmental conditions, China no longer allows imports of those foreign recycling materials. The result is essentially a crisis in everything but name, as this article in The New York Times details:

In the Pacific Northwest, [Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the country] has diverted more than 2,000 tons of paper to landfills since the Chinese ban came into effect, Mr. Keller said. The company has been unable to move that material to a market ‘at any price or cost,’ he said. Though Republic is dumping only a small portion of its total inventory so far—the company handles over five million tons of recyclables nationwide each year—it sent little to no paper to landfills last year.

But for smaller companies, like Rogue Disposal and Recycling, which serves much of Oregon, the Chinese ban has upended operations. Rogue sent all its recycling to landfills for the first few months of the year, said Garry Penning, a spokesman.

Western states, which have relied the most on Chinese recycling plants, have been hit especially hard. In some areas—like Eugene, Ore., and parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii—local officials and garbage haulers will no longer accept certain items for recycling, in some cases refusing most plastics, glass and certain types of paper. Instead, they say, customers should throw these items in the trash.

Some waste managers are holding out hope that China may change its mind and begin accepting recycled waste again, which may or may not be a realistic aspiration.

What’s truly amazing, though, is the idea that even with this major change in the way the ecosystem for waste works—and even with the growing problems stemming from climate change—there has been little or no change in awareness of how recycling works. The Times article hints at this reality: its title is “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not,” and an accompanying article called “6 Things You’re Recycling Wrong” offers a primer on recycling fundamentals that is so basic that it’s embarrassing that most people don’t already understand it.

Both underscore the idea that Americans clearly have no idea what it means to recycle—not just how to do it properly, but whether it’s truly a net positive for the environment or the economy. The assumption is that recycling is a magical cure-all for the deleterious effects of uninhibited consumption, when it clearly is not. There is a wanton disinterest in consequences here that is astounding but perhaps not surprising as choosing to ignore facts is clearly becoming the hallmark of our age.

If you’re interested in learning more about how waste can be tempered not just with recycling but also with a mindful approach to reduction and reuse, I recommend this episode of the 1A podcast.