For a feel-good alternative to tossing things in the trash, there’s always recycling. But the US recycling system was recently left in the lurch when China changed its policy on foreign waste imports. Here’s what you need to know to become savvy about recycling in the upcoming years.
What does China have to do with US recycling?
The US and the rest of the world used to rely heavily on China to import our recyclable plastic. In 2012, as much as 56% of the global plastic waste went to China. Now that China has chosen to restrict its imports of recyclable plastic, the US is scrambling to find a workaround.
In the past, it seemed logical to send back scrap materials on the empty cargo ships that had offloaded their goods from China in the US. The material would then return to the manufacturing hub of the world, where it could presumably be transformed into a raw material to produce more consumer goods.
An important shift in global trade took place in 2017 when China decided to ban 24 types of scrap, and hike up the standards on plastic contamination. These standards became so hard to meet that they essentially limited the imports of plastic.
The change has sent a shockwave through the recycling and waste disposal industries. The US has responded by trying to find alternate sites to divert its recyclables to other countries, but these other countries have started to limit imports, as well. Some cities have had to cancel their recycling programs, which has led to a spike in landfill use.
Another strategy is to better educate consumers to curb the source of waste. Plastic bans have already started to sweep around the world and other more meaningful changes could come to the recycling industry.
Why did China change its policy on plastic imports?
China changed its own domestic policies around recycling, to improve environmental and health hazards related to the industry. It also started to use its recycling facilities for domestic use. From a broader perspective, China has incentives to change its reputation as the number one global polluter.
What percentage of plastic waste gets recycled?
In 2018, scientists set out to measure how much plastic the world has produced since the material was invented around 1950. They found that approximately 8.3 billion metric tons had been produced. Of that, 12% has been incinerated and only 9% has been recycled. Most of the world’s plastic goes to the waste stream.
To address this issue, we need to confront the dilemmas associated with recycling head-on by understanding its limitations.
What can I do to make sure my boxes, bottles, and cans get recycled?
Many recycling centers see “aspirational recycling” as a huge hindrance to an effective recycling system. We throw the wrong kinds of plastic into the bin, or our containers may be contaminated with motor oil or food waste and covered with labels that can’t be recycled. To avoid contamination, here are a few helpful principles:
- Remove labels, plastic tape or other mixed materials from the packaging before recycling it.
- Clean off oil and food debris as much as possible before recycling containers.
- Check your local authority, but generally, only number 1 and 2 plastics can be recycled.
- Oily substances contaminate pizza boxes and other containers, rendering them unrecyclable.
- Make the extra effort to deposit plastic shopping bags, batteries, textiles, and compostable food waste at designated drop-offs around town.
Are there significant differences between recyclable materials?
Absolutely. Materials like glass and metal can be perpetually recycled without much-degraded quality. You can smelt an aluminum can into raw metal sheets and reshape it back into a recycled can again. Paper is less straightforward, but also poses less of an environmental risk because it is biodegradable and decomposes fairly rapidly in the environment.
Plastics are even more tricky. Firstly, most plastics take roughly 400 years to decompose. Secondly, they are rendered into non-recyclable plastic forms once they are recycled. This means they can usually only be recycled once or twice before they are no longer a recyclable material.
That’s why single-use plastics fill up the waste stream by design. Plastics should probably be reserved only for products designed for long-term use. If you choose to refrain from just one material, avoid single-use plastics.
Another thing to consider is that many materials look easy to recycle, but they are lined with plastic. This effectively “contaminates” that material. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to plastic linings and coatings on your containers.
Are there any benefits to purchasing recycled materials?
Yes! By purchasing recycled materials, you help the recycling centers earn profit from their activities. It’s a good idea to choose recycled materials because that means you’ve also avoided the use of raw materials for production.
Get smart about recycling this year and let us know the tips and tricks that have helped you keep your waste to a minimum.
Want to learn more? Check out this Instagram post on what the recycling numbers mean!