Recycling Won’t Save Us

Recycling Won’t Save Us

By: Rashail Wasim

With Earth Day having been expanded this year to Earth Month, there has been increased talk about how everyone is doomed and the planet is going to be unlivable in x number of years unless global lifestyles change drastically. In these discussions, the three R’s inevitably come up: reuse, reduce, and recycle. Of the three, the most emphasis has been given to recycling, as shown by the proliferation of blue bins in alleys. Everybody knows how the process works; put plastics, paper, and metals in the bin, a blue truck takes all of it to a factory, and the material is reforged so it can be used again. It’s a win-win for everyone!

That is, until one considers that all of the factories are in the People’s Republic of China. Or rather, were in the PRC. In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party banned the import of any and all recycled goods that aren’t 99.5% free of contamination.  For the United States, which has historically exported a little less than 40% of its recyclables to China, this change has been devastating for the industry. Exports of recycled goods plummeted 95% in 2018 from its high of 716 million tons in 2016, and haven’t risen much since.. This change was made because wages in China have risen rapidly, so it is no longer profitable to ship in foreign trash and sort out each material by hand. Alongside that, their growing economy has led to them producing a tremendous amount of their own waste, so their capacity for recyclable materials is now being filled by domestic sources.

The ban on exports has had a crushing effect on the domestic industry. In cities across the U.S., recycling programs are being cut back. Philadelphia is the most extreme example; they went from selling recyclables for $67 a ton in 2012 to losing $40 per ton of trash they had to get rid of. Currently, the city is burning about half of the recycled materials it collects. Stories like this one are common across the country. The biggest reason recycling is unprofitable is because of the poor job the U.S. does in sorting its waste. In the U.S., single-stream recycling is used in almost 2/3rds of recycling programs; all plastics, metals, and paper is put into one bin. While this system makes things convenient, it also ensures that 25% of American recyclables are contaminated. People put garden houses and pizza boxes along with crumpled papers and bottles, which causes huge issues. It simply isn’t worth the cost to pay workers to sort everything, especially since they would have to be paid exponentially more than the Chinese workers that once did much of the job.

The only way to rectify this problem is to divide up recyclables by material. Of course, carefully sorting waste when people have things to do is easier said than done. This apathy also gives notice to a larger problem with recycling; it has done little to stop peoples’ destructive lifestyles. Over half of the plastic ever produced has been created in the last 18 years, even though the U.S. has grown more conscious of the environment than ever before. And even before the ban on exports to China, the nation was still recycling only 9% of the plastics produced, while the other 91% was burned or thrown into landfills.

Recycling is not a bad thing. But this year,  it is time to recognize that instead of trying to diminish the impact of the plastic thrown away, the focus should be on reducing the amount of materials used in the first place. Multiple regions have banned plastic straws and/or started taxing plastic products. Chicago, for instance, has a $0.07 tax on every bag at checkouts. Recycling works to alleviate a symptom of the developed world’s habits, but to prevent catastrophe, there needs to be a change with the culture of unthinking consumption.  

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