How American Recycling Is Changing Now that China Won’t Take It

Yves here. What is distressing about this article on recycling is there is no mention of reducing waste in packaging and shifting to types that are biodegradable and/or more recycling friendly. One thing that had bothered me is how often health-oriented cleaning products and foods are packaged in plastic, and worse, in colored plastic which I understand is not recycling friendly. Some laundry powders are in cardboard boxes, but pods usually aren’t, for instance. And don’t get me started on all the plastic packaging of food…like salad. Pre-washed salad mixes are so pervasive that leaf lettuces are underrepresented and often sad-looking.

By Nicole Javorsky, an editorial fellow at CityLab. Originally published at CityLab; cross posted from Grist

“This facility is our version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

That’s how Eileen Kao described Montgomery County, Maryland’s recycling center on a tour. Kao, who is chief of waste reduction and recycling in the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, pointed out how machines in the facility help sort recyclables. As she described how the machines worked, a magnet separated steel and tin cans into a storage silo while a shaker table collected pieces of glass that were too small to be sorted. Dozens of workers hand-sorted at certain steps along the process.

The county’s recycling center in Derwood, Maryland, processed more than 31,000 tons of commingled material and more than 45,000 tons of mixed paper last year. At this building, commingled material (bottles, cans, and containers) is sorted. Mixed paper, including cardboard, is sorted in another facility nearby.

Over recent months, news coverage has depicted China’s National Sword policy as a crisis for recycling in municipalities all over the United States. Since early 2018, China has banned many scrap materials and has not accepted others unless they meet an extremely strict contamination rate of 0.5 percent. (Contamination rates of U.S. recyclables before sorting varyfrom place to place, but can reach 25 percentor higher.) The decision reflects China’s desire to recycle more of its domestic waste. Previously, China had been the destination for about 40 percent of the United States’ paper, plastics, and other recyclables.

National Sword sent waves through the global recyclables market. The changes in China diverted many materials to Southeast Asian countries, whose ports were not prepared to receive them in such high volume. Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia have begun to enact their own restrictions.

Meanwhile, many municipal recycling programs in the United States have suffered. As of January, Philadelphia was sending half of the recyclables it collects straight to the incinerator. Minneapolis stopped accepting black plastics. Marysville, Michigan, will no longer accept eight of 11 categories of items (including glass, newspaper, and mixed paper) for curbside recycling, in order to cut costs. Deltona, Florida, stopped curbside pickup altogether.

Many recycling and solid-waste organizations, as well as the U.S. EPA, have dedicated resources and staff to “identify solutions to be able to help support recycling here in the U.S.,” according to Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration at the Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that gives grants to and works with communities to improve their recycling programs. The EPA, which has typically left leadership on recycling to local governments, held its first-ever recycling summit in November 2018.

While recycling centers have been closing down in some places, like in greater Birmingham, Alabama, and around California, programs elsewhere are stepping up their efforts to decrease contamination levels in the recycling bin by educating residents about their role in the recycling process. This emphasis on outreach suggests a heavier onus on citizens to stop tossing items absentmindedly into the bin, and start disposing of them in a more informed, deliberate way.

Take plastic bags, for example. Whereas most grocery chains accept plastic bags for recycling, most municipal recycling programs do not. Still, plastic bags are frequently found in recycling bins. The mistake is so pervasive that Washington, D.C., mailed postcards to residents instructing them not to put plastic bags in the recycling bin. (D.C. only prints two types of mailers each year for recycling, one an overview and another focused on a particular issue.)

D.C. also did a pilot program with the Recycling Partnership to provide curbside feedback for residents. On one route, staff left a note behind for residents who had plastic bags in their recycling bin. Another route was the control, and staff did not leave tags. The route that gave residents feedback in the form of tags saw a 19-percent drop in plastic bags over the course of two weeks. The control route? An increase in bags of 2 percent.

“What we’re suggesting … is being very strategic and consistent with your tagging,” said Cody Marshall, the Recycling Partnership’s chief community strategist officer. “You have to go to the same houses over and over again four to five times with the tagging messages to really have an impact.”

Systematic tagging is an important strategy in the toolbox, according to Marshall, because it’s a targeted intervention to decrease the high contamination levels plaguing many municipalities as they try to bring their bales of recyclables to market. Recycling programs in central Virginia, El Paso, Tampa Bay and Orange County, Florida, and Phoenix are all tracking the impact of tagging on contamination.

The need for systematic approaches to reduce contamination is clear. Even though Americans recycle more now than ever, they’re not always sure what their local recycling program accepts. Increasingly, those mistakes can be costly for municipalities that are trying to sell the recyclables in bales. And, of course, to ensure that even more materials don’t end up in the landfill or incinerator.

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Recycling and Composting Rates, 1960 to 2015

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Many Americans are either aspirational recyclers,” said David Biderman, the executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), “or they’re confused recyclers. Just because it’s made of plastic doesn’t mean it can be recycled.”

What can and cannot be recycled, as well as how recyclables are separated, differs based on where you live. Montgomery County, for example, has a dual-stream model. Residents have to sort their recyclables into two groups: commingled materials (bottles, cans, and containers) and mixed paper (cardboard and paper). Under a single-stream approach, by contrast, residents throw all household recyclables into one bin, separate only from non-recyclable trash. D.C. has a single-stream system.

While dual-stream recycling allows the sorting process to begin before waste reaches the facility, single-stream recycling is convenient because people can put everything in the same bin. Between 2005 and 2014, the single-stream model went from being used by 29 percent of American communities to 80 percent, according to one survey. It may lead to people putting fuller bins out to be collected, but the uptake of single-stream recycling has also meant higher contamination rates.

Somecommunities are switching back to dual-stream in an attempt to bring down contamination. Otherwise, they’re hoping citizens can make better recycling decisions. Ecomaine, a nonprofit that processes recycling for more than 70 communities in Maine on a single-stream model, recently hired a new educator to inform residents about what’s recyclable, what’s not, and why.

“It has certainly been a tough year-and-a-half to two years,” said Ecomaine’s communications manager, Matt Grondin. “But in the end, that landfill storage is forever storage, and to abandon recycling programs for a year or two of a down market really is a short-sighted solution to a long-term problem.”

Back in Maryland, China’s policy hasn’t led Montgomery County to stop recycling anything. It continues to generate revenues from all the materials it recycles, Kao said, except mixed-color, broken glass, which it pays to recycle because it has little value. The county sells the majority of its bales domestically. In fact, one silver lining to China’s crackdown is a growing domestic market in the United States. More than a dozen North American paper mills have announced new capacity to process recycled paper, although it will be a few years before all of it comes online.

In any case, there are strategies that local programs can use, either separately or in combination, to find their way back to health and continue recycling waste. China’s policy change may not represent the much-feared “end of recycling” in the United States so much as an inflection point.

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  1. kimyo

    my two pet peeves: 1) why can’t i bring a growler into a wine shop? the amount of glass i’ve put into the single stream recycling system is horrifying. 2) incandescent bulbs, aside from providing much nicer and long-lasting light, are far less likely to damage the environment than cfl’s and led’s (especially now that many of them will end up being incinerated/landfilled).

    1. Alex V

      Some thoughts:

      1. Glass is one of the easiest and best materials to recycle. It recycles to essentially the same quality level, unlike plastics. It can also be washed and sterilized easily, so reuse is also an alternative to recycling. A growler at the wine shop could reduce some waste, but may also affect the product quality, at least in comparison to normal bottles:

      There are better places to start in reducing material usage.

      2. Incandescent bulbs, based on virtually all life cycle analyses are worse for the environment, by far, than CFLs or LEDs. Modern CFLs, while containing mercury themselves, still emit less mercury to the environment over their lifespan than incandescent bulbs which require far more electricity. In many parts of the world this electricity comes from coal which contains mercury that is emitted to the atmosphere when burned. LEDs consume even less materials and can be tuned to provide almost any color light desired. Their biggest weakness from an environmental standpoint are the semiconductor materials used, which are quite nasty if not properly treated. However, only a small amount is required per product. Recycling is also not ideal, due to the large number of different materials used in a “bulb”.

      1. kimyo

        my experience with both cfl’s and led’s doesn’t match yours. cfl’s provide terrible quality light, they dim quite rapidly, and they die long before their promised lifetimes. cfl’s also emit uvb-c light as their coating fails, unless you wear sunscreen indoors you’re unprotected against that.

        i’ve installed eight led bulbs over the last five years. all but one have failed.

        incandescents are much more worthy, they use far fewer materials and they provide desirable lighting. you can find ‘rough service’ incandescents online.

        1. Carla

          Like you, kimyo, I sorely miss the quality of incandescent light — and I don’t care what they say about LED’s being able to match that quality and warmth — I haven’t yet found one that does. And I have TRIED.

          I haven’t had a problem with the reliability of LED bulbs, although I did with cfl’s — I never buy the latter anymore. So my compromise is to use LEDs wherever bright light is needed (bathrooms, kitchen, home office) and I don’t care so much about the warmth of the illumination. In the dining room and living room, where I DO care, I still use incandescent bulbs. Maybe by the time my supply runs out and no more are available, LED technology will have advanced to offer a true “warm light” option.

          1. jrs

            I’ve never had problems with LEDs – they seem to last forever. I do like incandescent light a few places.

            OTOH incandescents DO generate excess heat and summer is hard to survive as is. So I switch nearly all lights out to LED then (and yes I have a window A/C unit and thank heaven for it, and use it when need be – it helps, still summer … can be brutal).

            So using LEDS is really not just about “saving the planet”, it’s really about basic comfort in the home sometimes. And yes sometimes sitting in the dark is just staying cool. Stay cool: SUMMER IS COMING!

            1. kareninca

              In my experience the LEDs last, but the lamps that they are built into disintegrate so it doesn’t matter that the bulb is still okay; the whole thing has become a piece of garbage.

        2. Medbh

          I’ve had terrible experiences with the longevity of these bulbs as well. They claim that they will last years, and they last months. I originally thought maybe my kitchen light was defective in some way, but I’ve had the same problem in our new house. I’ve bought multiple brands from different stores. They have no where near the longevity that’s claimed.

          1. Amfortas the hippie

            our first curly florescent bulb, some 16 years ago, lasted almost ten years.
            the led’s i started trying out some 5-7 years ago(i’m rather timeless, so grain of salt) are all still going strong(one got clobbered(but didn’t break) by a large hailstone)
            i worried myself sick over 2-3 cfs i dropped many moons ago…shattering them…but is it any worse than whatever’s in the old fashioned long skinny flourescent’s? or any number of other poisons we’re exposed to every day without even knowing?
            when i impose my periodic power outages(call it “family time”,lol…or a drill), it’s kerosene lamps and parrafin candles(until the bees get going).what’s the footprint, there?
            One does what one can.
            however, since we switched to all cfs…then all led…power bills have fallen to nil, save for when it’s hot enough for the AC.
            That has to balance some of the nasty out.

        3. Chad boudreau

          Our failure rate for installing the generic brand lights from home depot and Lowe’s has definitely been absurd, but every other brand does just fine. For a long time it was fiendishly difficult to find a compatible dimmer switch though :/

      2. jrs

        I don’t know, glass seems just as hard to find anywhere to recycle as plastic these days. Is any glass actually recycled in the U.S. or is that all China as well?

        It seems in theory glass should be more recyclable and preferable to plastic and a better choice (still probably is, at least it’s non-toxic!). But U.S. industrial policy might be so dumb that we outsourced all glass recycling to China too – like we did manufacturing.

      3. Jeremy Grimm

        Glass can be cleaned and sterilized but ‘easily’ — I’m not so sure about that. I reuse a lot of jars because I am very fond of glass. I haven’t noticed anything especially easy about cleaning off the labels and some jars and bottles have painted on labels that only sandblasting will remove.

        As for re-using glass, glass like plastic, comes in many different formulations. A glass manufacturer needs to control the physical properties of the glass produced. In practice a new batch glass can only include a certain per cent of cullet.
        “The composition of external cullet is difficult to define accurately and due to quality concerns caused by the impurities, its usability in certain product groups – notably luxury container glass, tableware, special glass and flat glass – remains limited. Container glass segment, on the other hand, can use significant quantities of external cullet. In the EU, external cullet use in container glass production varies from 90, with the average being around 50%.” “Increased Cullet Use” [].

        Why isn’t the US doing better job recycling glass?:
        “The US glass-recycling shortfall comes down to the interplay between the quality and availability of cullet and the economics of making glass, he explains. And, he says, the recycling rate discrepancies between the US and other countries result mainly from differences in government policy and consumer education and habits.”
        “Unlike plastic, glass is nontoxic and can be recycled again and again. But plastic is cheap to make, ship and store, prompting beverage and food makers to turn to plastic as a way to boost profits. In January, Snapple became the latest drink maker to switch its bottles from glass to plastic.”
        “Why Glass Recycling in the U.S. is Broken”[]

    2. Alexandra

      Even when not discernable visually, our eyes have cells that detect the flicker (“noise”) of light sources, and fluorescent and LED lights produce a lot of this noise while incandescents don’t. According to “LED Lighting Flicker and Potential Health Concerns: IEEE Standard PAR1789 Update,” the deleterious health effects caused by light flicker are an “emerging concern.” At the very least these effects include headache, eye strain, and a sense of malaise (op. cit.).

      CFLs and LEDs also produce much more blue light than incandescents, which is also known to be detrimental to health.

      So it isn’t just that CFLs and LEDs look harsher and colder–they literally make us feel bad. Of course, coal emissions and such also have a negative impact on health–so you get to pick your poison.

  2. Harry Shearer

    One of the increasing sources of waste is the packaging for the shipping of materials ordered online (I”m looking at you, amazon). Small items are encased in packages five times their size, the rest of the interior is taken up with filler material. Particularly true for electronics.

        1. ewmayer

          Did he offer you any pimento-less olives or too-small-bread sandwiches?

          Hard to believe that movie was released 35 years ago – time eventually makes us all into the equvalent of a bunch of old geezers, fartin’ around onstage…

    1. Pespi

      Even so, the fabs that make those things are a manifest of enviornmental destruction, and multiply it by 12 if you want to go all the way down the supply chain.

      It would be great if there was some consideration of the side effects of these surges of ‘consumer choice’ that fundamentally change society

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Just one point that’s often forgotten in the debate – consumer waste is only a very small percentage of overall waste arisings. It depends on the region, but consumer waste is rarely more than 20%, often a lot less. The big generators of waste are industry/commercial, agriculture and construction. Another big one is municipal sewerage.

    So this problem with poorly sorted consumer recyclables is very much the tip of the iceberg. If you really want to shift to a sustainable, closed loop economy then the main focus needs to be on commercial and agriculture waste. Agricultural waste is really the big one – a vast amount of compostable material is thrown into landfills or lagoons or is incinerated or landspread in inappropriate ways. Composting (aerobic and anaerobic) is in many ways the orphan child of the waste cycle, we could address many of our environmental ills by insisting on appropriate composting of much of our waste and using it in no-till sustainable agricultural systems.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I think it would take a very big club — like some government regulations — to compel Big Ag in the US to compost their waste materials. Also I worry that much of their waste is heavily polluted with pesticides and herbicides. It might not be the best ever compost — maybe an alternative to using ground up tires as a ground cover?

      Rural towns might get people to save their garbage for composting if the towns made the compost mix and sold or shared back the finished compost but in our cities I’m not sure it would be worth the fragrance. Maybe if we had more parks in our cities where the finished compost might find a home?

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        manure connoisseur, here.
        the quality of feedlot cow crap(small feedlots are what I know) has plummeted in the last 30 years.
        some around here feed their cows stale bread and stale tater chips…and the poop is greasy and will not compost(or allow anything to grow in it, as attested by a 10×10 test site across the road)
        for the last ten years, “persistent herbicides”…that go unchanged through the livestock…make your tomatoes look like they’ve been sprayed with 2-4-D.
        composting doesn’t break them down either…and dow/dupont won’t allow a field test for their presence(per the exasperated epa guy i talked to a few years ago).
        I appealed to the owner of the feed store..old guy, likes the smell of horseshit…and he was horrified at unusable poop…and took the offending chems off the shelves.
        big ag is second only to big oil in being creatures of Mordor, and killing the planet.
        so that’s one obstacle to the otherwise great idea of composting all that industrial ag waste.
        in related news, I’ve been an evangelist for methane digesters(which WILL kill off the persistent herbicides) instead of sewer plants…and instead of sending feedlot waste to landfills…or spreading around unconsciously. use the methane to generate electricity, and the sterile nutrient slush that remains as fertiliser.
        my city/county weren’t interested, when they were looking to redo the city’s wastewater pond system(sic).
        aversion to poop gas is why exxon, et alia calls it “natural gas”.

  4. Shonde

    Anyone know how clean recycled containers (jars, cans) have to be? Having lived in drought stricken California until last year, I never wanted to waste precious water rinsing residue from containers but yet felt like I was contaminating the recycling bin if there was still residue in a container. How do you clean a glass peanut butter jar without using tons of water?

    1. Fraibert

      My local recycling in a pretty affluent area directs to not include peanut butter containers, presumably because removal of the oils is not viable.

      (It also excludes actual food oil containers for that reason.)

    2. atl

      I put them or other containers that need more than a quick rinse in the dishwasher. It is disheartening to hear of the recycling difficulties as I am a diligent recycler. If you really want to see waste though work in a food processing plant.

    3. Alex V

      This is of course depends very much on what particular logistics chain your recycling will go through, but glass and metal can in theory be left quite dirty, as both will be melted down at extremely high temperatures, so any food residue will just burn off. Materials are however often washed after being crushed or shredded in recycling plants prior to being sent on for further processing.

      In practice you’re asked to clean items to reduce animals and insects around recycling facilities, to make handling more pleasant for hand sorting, and to reduce transport costs.

      Plastics and paper are however a different story – here contamination easily ruins the material, since it is recycled in a different way. Plastics will be washed before reprocessing, but as another comment mentions, oil is the enemy, and is difficult to remove.

      If you can, put items in the dishwasher with regular loads, after scraping as much residue off as possible. Modern dishwasher and detergents work best when there is something to remove, and are more water efficient than washing by hand. Pre-rinsing dishes is in most cases counterproductive, for example. This also puts the food waste in the wastewater system, which is in many cases the best alternative if composting is not available. It will then likely be aerobically digested at the wastewater treatment plant, instead of ending up in a landfill to anaerobically degrade.

      As with basically anything related to sustainability, it all depends on local conditions. You could be saving water by not rinsing, only for items to be sent to a place with even less water for cleaning, or vice versa.

      1. False Solace

        I’d be careful with that too. If you try to dispose of food by rinsing it away you can expect to make some expensive calls to the plumber. Kitchen pipes aren’t really intended or designed for that, whether or not you have a “garbage disposal”. Oils especially will solidify in your plumbing and cause blockages.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          this was a major lesson learned in my graywater adventures.
          now, they all have cleanout/flush valves that empty that nasty whitish grease into particular spots where it can be composted/where particular plants don’t care…in 2 lines, directly into the built wetland,(still in progress…need more cattails…)
          it also makes a difference, it seems, that the most industrial cooking oil we use is peanut oil….and that, very rarely(butter, olive oil and bacon grease are the perennials around here–the latter Ive considered for soap, but I can only handle so much,lol)
          canola and “vegetable oil” seems to be muckier, per my experiments.(turned my mom, who uses these products, off of graywater adventures altogether)

    4. Jeremy Grimm

      Save paper towels as you use them. Use already used paper towels to wipe the peanut butter out of the jar and from the lid. Soak the jar in soapy water to remove the label (if you are so lucky as to buy peanut butter that uses a water soluble label glue!) and most of the remaining peanut butter/oil. Put the jar and lid into the tail of your dishwashing of hand-wash items and use a brush to scrub out the inside of the jar and to scrub away any remaining glue from the label area. Peanut butter jars are great for a lot of uses!

  5. Fraibert

    NYC uses the only solution that will probably be effective in durable changes in recyclable sorting behavior–it actually fines property owners for errors in its dual stream sort. When I was living in Brooklyn a few years ago, the landlord received a $100 fine (or something like that) because lined paper cartons (milk cartons) were included in the wrong stream.

    Of course, fines themselves have their own issues, especially with regard to economic class, and I believe there’s also a fine for tossing residential recyclables to make this approach make any sense …

  6. Synoia

    As a child, we had one small dustbin (garbage can) which we never filled.

    We also had and used a compost pile.

    Packaging was cardboard.

    Now I have three garbage cans, each 3 or 4 times the volume of the childhood dustbin. And buy a huge amount of packaging every week which fills one of the garbage cans.

  7. Steve

    The single biggest problem in recycling is people. We here in the US and in emerging economies have so many people that just will not recycle or do it correctly that they make the number of people who do meaningless. Our time to reduce has long past as shown by just plastics in the ocean and micro plastics now in groundwater. The only chance would be to immediately stop adding to the problem and at the same time begin removing these contaminants from the environment. As a world population we do not have the technological or moral capacity to accomplish this. We have created another Herb Stein scenario ” If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.

    1. Louis Fyne

      ^^^ That. even one’s best efforts at recycling and reducing consumption is like spitting into the wind given developed world and developing world consumption trends.

      (my OCD pet peeve is people taking their plastic bags for recycling to the Mega-Lo Mart on the way in, but leaving with new plastic bags on the way out…versus using those bags as wastebasket bags, reusing them at the store, etc)

      Living like Henry David Thoreau isn’t sexy, nor aspirational, nor instagram-worthy.

      sorry to be defeatist.

  8. TG

    But ‘recycling’ hasn’t changed at all. It remains what it has always been, a publicity stunt, something to make people feel virtuous, but there has never been any serious attempt at making sure it it really helps the environment. There are no serious analyses about whether the resources needed to collect and clean and sort and reprocess ‘recyclables’ are less or greater than those need to make new materials from scratch. And even if ‘recycling’ really is a net positive, is the sum total significant compared to the entire economy? Can ‘recycling’ as we are doing it now really compensate for adding another 100 million people to the population of the United States? And the next 100 million? Do the numbers add up? And then there is the Canadian government’s plan to increase its population to 100 million and more – will recycling plastic bottles etc. eliminate the environmental impact of this pro-growth policy? (Oh, and the notion that immigration just moves people around is firstly irrelevant as regards the ability of the United States to protect its environment, and also false, as every person escaping from the overpopulated third world ultimately just makes room for more people back home).

    Saving the environment would require plans and actions that are grounded in physical reality, where total net resource consumption is calculated. But what we have is mere posturing, it is supposed to work because it sounds good, believing in it automatically makes us virtuous. People feeling noble about putting things in the recycling bins, and then having them incinerated or put into landfills, is how it’s going to go. When pressed about the futility of ‘recycling’ in this manner, I expect most holier-than-thou environmentalists will simply say that ‘oh but it could be made to work and meanwhile we can only do what we can’ and blithely continue on.

    1. Alex V

      While agree with your general sentiment that a pathetically large percentage of recycling programs are window dressing, this sentence is patently false:

      “There are no serious analyses about whether the resources needed to collect and clean and sort and reprocess ‘recyclables’ are less or greater than those need to make new materials from scratch.”

      There countless studies on exactly this subject. A sampling, from an academic journal:

      Wholesale dismissal of recycling is counterproductive. It is one tool to solve the issues facing humanity.

      There is a reason it comes last in the the three Rs of waste management: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, exactly so, there are numerous life cycle studies on all aspects of the waste hierarchy. Recycling most materials does provide a benefit (if not as great a one as many people think). Sometimes recycling is actually better than re-use (with milk bottles, for example – the energy used to clean a glass milk bottle is greater than that required to melt and reform the glass).

        But in general it is true that even with long travel distances, recycling makes environmental sense, just not as much as not generating the waste in the first place. The whole thing about the environmental cost of sending material to China is a red herring as its largely using surplus cargo capacity in any respect (besides which, China needs the material more than the US or Europe does).

        1. Alex V

          Good point about cargo capacity. It’s not like they build ships in China that send stuff to the US, never to return. And the US is not manufacturing much that gets sent the other way in similar volumes.

          What’s also lost in the discussion is that most of this material was sold to China, as there is a global market in post consumer waste with its own dynamics and economics.

          In a perverse way, the National Sword program is China’s way of becoming trash independent, no longer reliant on foreign waste as a strategic resource…

          Not justifying any of this, just adding some detail on the current system.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            It was always perfectly rational and environmentally sensible to send recyclable materials to China. It was utilising spare one-way shipping capacity, and China is by far the biggest market for low grade raw materials. For many recycled materials, scale is essential to make recycling processes workable, and China has a manufacturing scale larger than anywhere on earth.

            The problem is not that materials were being sent to China, but that China was accepting very low grades of material, and this completely distorted the market for ‘clean’ recyclables. Its a good thing that this has changed, its just a pity it had to be forced on the west.

          2. False Solace

            There are also the questionable ethics of manufacturing lots of junky items with plastic packaging and refusing to take any responsibility for disposal or reuse. This is not solely on the Chinese, of course, since many of their factories are operated on behalf of foreigners, who also buy the stuff.

    2. Randy

      Yes, recycling was and is a sick joke. People can’t be bothered to inform themselves of the recycling rules so the bins at my single stream collection point are full of non-recyclable crap. Then these bins are trucked 60 miles to the sorting station where some of the non-recyclable crap that shouldn’t be in there in the first place is pulled out. Then the stuff is loaded on an eighteen wheeler and trucked 250 miles to a Great Lakes port to begin its long journey to the Far East, where it might or might not be actually recycled.

      The US should be recycling its own garbage but to do that right has upfront costs. In the short term it is cheaper for US politicians and citizens, oops I mean consumers, to kick the can down the sea lanes to the Far East. It would not be surprising if a cost analysis found it to be cheaper if done correctly more locally . FUBAR.

  9. johnnygl

    My takeaway from this is that before china changed its policy, a lot of municipalities didn’t have a recycling program. They had a ‘ship the trash to China’ program and told people it was a recycling program.

    Now, some of those municipalities are actually trying to recycle for real!

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield

      Exactly! So, now that the sources of waste (in the US, and EU), are being forced to look at this de novo, the question becomes: what should their waste management policy look like? As I’ve written at length before, IMHO, there should be far less reliance on the recycling fairy, and far more on reducing generating plastics waste in the first instance. I see that the EU Parliament last week approved a ban on single use plastics –-European Parliament votes for ban on single-use plastic

      But if I read this correctly, this does not include plastics packaging. So a welcome first step, but more a virtue signalling exercise than a comprehensive solution.

      1. urblintz


        I think it’s absurd that “saving the environment” has been laid at the feet of people who usually have little choice about packaging etc… Why should we be the ones using (and paying for) precious water to clean plastic which we had no say over being used in the first place? Plastic will not go away until there are laws restricting its use for all the consumer goods.

        It’s like home owners insurance… if you have a mortgage you are not the owner and can lose your home by missing the payments. Until it is paid for, the bank owns the asset… they should have to protect it through the insurance scam, not the “owner” who in actuality doesn’t own a damn thing.

        1. Arizona Slim

          And, after its paid for, stop paying your property taxes. Then you’ll find out who really owns your house. Hint: It won’t be you.

      2. The Rev Kev

        I thought about recycling my garbage into my neighbour’s backyard but I do not think that he would be happy about that. I myself do not like the idea but perhaps we should think about charging people by the weight of their garbage when it is picked up by garbage trucks. The truck could weigh it as it is being picked up and an IR tag in the handle could be read to match the bin with the weight for the purposes of making up bills. You would find then that most people would recycle biomass into their gardens and the like but more to the point, people would revolt against companies using excess packaging as they would have to pay for it’s disposable then.
        Good article called “Global recycling crisis shows West can’t use poorer countries as dumping grounds” by the way at-

      3. PlutoniumKun

        The irony is that a decade or more ago the EU had a pretty good waste policy. But it fell foul of two processes:

        1. Our old friend neoliberalism, pushed by ‘competition’ policy broke the link between waste collection authorities and waste disposal/treatment authorities. This destroyed the possibility of creating coherent policies from disposal to treatment. Nobody will invest in serious recycling when they can’t control the supply of material. I saw lots of recycling companies go bankrupt over the past decade or so because of the whims of the waste collection market.

        2. They failed to grasp the nettle of seeing that waste policy must start at the production stage. Insisting, for example, on standardised plastics in containers (its separating different types and grades that makes recycling plastics so difficult – if they are properly pre-sorted recycling is quite easy and efficient). There was also a failure to see that major investment was needed to encourage the use of secondary materials, whether it is compost, or aggregate, etc. A lot of material is not recycled simply because its too easy for specifiers to insist on ‘virgin’ materials when buying.

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      for several years, when i went to the landfill(I’m the trash man around here), they wouldn’t let me go pick through the metal pile, as was my habit….some company had bought the rights. ( some of the landfill people would let me, but told me not to get caught(!))
      since this china thing, I’m free again to pick through the metal pile at will…lots of perfectly usable tin roofing for goose sheds and such…structural pipe and i-beams…rebar galore, and about half the fencing down there is actually rolled up neatly before being dumped.
      we’ve been running off with old telephne poles, too…landfill is forbidden to do anything with them but either let them pile up(pile is bigger than my house) or give them away.
      so I’ve got a sort of palisade/stockade fence in the works on the north side(windbreak, and faces the incoming dirt road…so potential protection from marauding hordes), a nice pergola for the bbq pit, a golf cart barn and a soon to be largeish shed for all the salvaged lumber and metal i accumulate. all this, mostly free….from things others throw away. no china needed.
      damned things are labor intensive, but are all but immortal(we only get the older ones, that are no longer seeping black goo, and wear protective clothing)

  10. Wukchumni

    What was the real cost of recycling a 20 oz Pepsi plastic soda bottle making it’s way from your hand to the blue bin, and then it was sorted out here in a faux recycling center, and sent on a very large container ship to a port in China, where it disembarked on a truck or train to be rendered into something else in an abattoirecycling factory.

    $2, maybe closer to $3?

  11. rod

    privatized the profit and socialized the cost
    my world would keep makers out of the market until they could demonstrate the circular economy of their product and delivery system.

  12. Daniel Norman

    Why don’t municipalities create a program to employ homeless in recycling sorting facilities? It would be relatively easy to train someone, and having them sit along conveyor belts sorting would get them off the streets, and into productive labor for pay?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      One reason quite a few charities historically got involved in recycling is that the very monotonous job of handpicking materials from mixed recyclables is in fact ideal and satisfying work for some people with learning disabilities or other mental/physical issues. Back in the 1990’s I visited a separation centre in Milton Keynes in England and all the pickers were employed from a rehabilitation charity. Many of them were unemployable elsewhere and very proud to be able to earn an income to bring home to their families.

      One good thing about China’s ban on materials is that it will hopefully make this sort of separation facility viable again – the big Chinese market for ‘impure’ recyclables meant it was cheaper for industry to go for cruder mechanical separation and so these jobs weren’t available.

  13. Some Guy

    Here in B.C. the generators of plastic have to pay a fee and the province uses that to process everything locally. Not clear to me why everyone doesn’t do this?

  14. thesaucymugwump

    Something that would never be mentioned in an article such as this is the difference between Americans and foreigners with respect to recycling. There is a city in the Denver area which had a major recycling facility for years. Residents could bring glass, metal, plastic, paper, and landscaping waste, and deposit it in huge bins. It worked fine for years. But then one day, maybe ten years ago, foreigners started using the bins as free trash containers. I personally saw Asians drive up and empty their trucks of all sorts of hazardous trash, including propane tanks which need special recycling. Not surprising, the facility closed.

    Brexit and other nationalist drives are a reaction to this sort of thing. And rightfully so.

    The people who buy a new smartphone every year even though their old one is perfectly usable somehow do not realize that their precious toys need specialized recycling, as do all computer parts.

    1. wilroncanada

      It was all those fur’ners. No true US-ite would ever do such a thing as use a recycling facility for garbage. Not when there were all those forest trails to dump it in, along with the old tires, couches, used Scandanavian furniture, and whatnot. Just ask Donald.

  15. Susan the other`

    Let’s make this a test case for the new and improved financial scheme of the World Bank. It admits the days of externalizing costs are over and it all has to be accounted for going forward so this is the perfect theater to prove how much actual integrity their development bonds promote. Somebody call them up and ask them if they would please organize the solution to global recycling. Yes, we’ll bond for this experiment but if they screw it up they won’t get another dime. Their plan to elbow their private-financed way in to sustainable development via sovereign guarantees needs to be reality tested. Let them sort recycling.

  16. fnx

    One item that’s never mentioned in any recycling articles is plastic prescription bottles. Here you have powdered/liquid drug residues that filter thru to affect the groundwater when included in landfills, but aren’t acceptable in the recycling stream. You also have that sticky little problem of the labels with your name and the drugs you’re taking that you don’t want others to know about. I’ve asked at Walgreen’s and they said they don’t accept the empty bottles back, but my local store told me I could drop mine off since I’m a regular customer and they would add it to their recycling bin – very mixed messaging there. In any case, it seems like a huge problem to me and I really wish more stories included, or even focused on occasionally, this item of waste.

    1. Lamovr

      Fill your pill bottles with water and heat them in your microwave. The labels with all the personally identifying information will peel off easily. Alternatively, heat the labels until they turn black and illegible.

  17. Chad boudreau

    Have any municipalities tried paying their citizens for clean and sorted recycling?

    If it’s properly sorted and cleaned, apparently it is worth money. Have they tried paying for their inputs?

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