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For a feel-good alternative to tossing things in the trash, where they will inevitably end up in a landfill, there’s always recycling. But the U.S. recycling system was recently left in a 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.
The U.S. and the rest of the world used to rely heavily on China to import our recyclable plastic. In 2012, as much as 56 percent of the global plastic waste went to China. Now that China has chosen to restrict its imports of recyclable plastic, the U.S. is scrambling to find a workaround so that countless plastic bottles, jugs, plastic bags and other types of plastic containers don’t make their way into landfills.
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 U.S. The recyclable 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 all types of plastic.
The change has sent a shockwave through the recycling and waste disposal industries. The U.S. 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 local recycling programs, which has led to a spike in landfill use and made it more difficult for municipalities to offer curbside recycling programs. And, of course, consumers and retailers alike now have way fewer options when it comes to emptying their recycling bins and dealing with recyclable materials.
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. Many states have already enacted plastic bag bans to reduce plastic waste, and countless restaurants have switched from Styrofoam takeout containers to more eco-friendly alternatives, like cardboard.
China changed its own domestic policies around recycling to improve environmental and health hazards related to the industry and the overall recycling process. 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, so it makes sense that it would shift its focus toward dealing with their own recyclable materials and not materials being imported from around the world.
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 percent has been incinerated and only nine percent has been recycled. Most of the world’s plastic goes to the waste stream.
There are many reasons why most plastic does not get recycled. Some plastics, including those used in pipes, electrical insulation, ropes, hoses and belts, melt when exposed to heat. As a result, these plastic items are nearly impossible to recycle.
Consumers — even the most well-meaning ones — often unknowingly make plastics unrecyclable, too. Putting empty containers in the recycling bin is great, but if the consumer fails to rinse out any contaminants, they cannot be recycled. Food and other products contaminate otherwise recyclable materials, making them unfit for the recycling process. Pizza boxes, plastic bottles containing soda or oil residue, takeout containers with food scraps, etc. tend to wind up in landfills or incinerators because only clean, good-quality items can be recycled. We will discuss this more in the next section.
To address these issues, we need to confront the dilemmas associated with recycling head-on by understanding its limitations.
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:
Absolutely. Materials like glass and metal can be perpetually recycled without much-degraded quality. You can smelt an aluminum can or clean aluminum foil into raw metal sheets and reshape it back into a new usable item. 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. Even if you are unable to ditch them completely, you can make simple switches like swapping plastic wrap for reusable beeswax wraps or using glass containers to store leftovers rather than single-use plastic ones.
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.
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!