The Recycling Crisis

Despite what the Magic School Bus, Captain Planet and other environmental icons from our childhood taught us, effectively recycling an object is not as simple as simply ensuring it goes in the right bin. This presents problems, as our ability to recycle effectively is currently being greatly diminished by a number of factors. Between “wish cycling” by consumers, poor infrastructure at the municipal level, and Asian countries refusing to take the mounting amount of single-use waste other countries are producing, the Global North’s recycling is facing a sharp drop in efficiency. So let’s look at some common recycling misconceptions.

Read the Label

In the US, the universal symbol for recycling symbol contains a number. For years, I had no idea what this number meant, as I believe is common. It has to do with the thickness of the plastic, as machines that process plastics cannot necessarily process every kind of plastic. Thin plastic bags, for example, can jam or damage machines meant for thicker plastics. Another problem is “wish cycling”, whereby consumers assume a used product is recyclable, when it is in fact not. A great example is pizza boxes. In most countries, cardboard that has been spoiled by food should actually be placed in your regular bin (or organics bin if you have one. For a list of other common culprits, see here).

What can and cannot be recycled can depend on where you live, so look up the regulations for your area before you toss something.  At a processing plant, if too many items in one batch of “recyclables” cannot be processed, the whole load goes into the landfill. So, actually understanding if a product can be recycled has important ramifications for not just that one item, but a whole load of waste.

China doesn’t want our dirty plastics

In the latest garbage news, China decided to stop buying used plastics from several countries. The ten seconds you do not take to wash out your yogurt container has a ripple effect when you multiply that by millions of consumers, and Asian countries are tired of receiving dirty plastic. Thousands of kilos of moldy plastic containers takes time, money, and effort to clean and turn into something. Meanwhile, many Asian economies are changing from being centered on manufacturing products to providing services. This means they do not need to take in plastics that take extensive labor to clean and process. China led the way in this transition on December 31st, 2017. Now, while “recycling” still continues in the US, if collectors cannot find someone to buy the recyclables they collect, they are being dumped in landfills.

Before you get mad at China, think about the madness of making a product in China, shipping it to the US where a consumer uses it once, then shipping it back to China where it has to be cleaned, processed, and shipped again. There are carbon emissions attached to each step of that process. China has a point when they say this is not environmentally friendly.

So why not just recycle waste locally? This comes down to the sheer amount produced -local recycling plants would just be overwhelmed by the enormous volume of waste to recycle. While we probably will see greater investment in recycling infrastructure in countries like the US, the real problem is rampant consumption of cheap single use products. We’ve talked about overconsumption before on EcoMass. While there is still space in landfills, eventually we will fill them up if we keep consuming goods at the same rate (go see WALL-E for the worst case scenario).

The reality is we need to consume – from food, to energy, to water. So when you do, be responsible. Bring a cool to-go mug. Have your own water bottle that you can wash and reuse. Look into buying food from local farmers (or at the very least the same country you’re in) that don’t cover their vegetables in plastic. Buy whatever you can in bulk to reduce packaging waste. And, for the environment’s sake, check whether what you are putting in the bin can actually be recycled.

For a more in-depth look at the Recycling Crisis, see this excellent piece in the Financial Times from last year.

Featured Image Credit: Adam Novak, Pixabay

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