When China stopped buying raw recycled materials from the U.S. in 2018, the event revealed a gaping hole where domestic recycling infrastructure in the U.S. should’ve been. If you’re reading this, the chances are high that you’re not a head of state, an environmental lobbyist, or the head of a waste-management company. You don’t have millions of dollars to throw at the problem, nor the motivation to be the engine behind large-scale systemic change.
But you do care about our earth, and you do wish that recycling in the U.S. was real. You want the choices you make to contribute to a better future instead of destroying it. You’re willing to do what you can, at your level and within your power, but the problem just seems way too big and you’re not sure how to be a part of the solution.
This article offers a story of why recycling in the U.S. is currently in crisis and reveals how you can be a part of the solution given the current reality.
For decades, cities across the United States created recycling programs, educated their citizens on waste separation, and celebrated doing right for the planet by mimicking nature’s cycle of turning the energy from death into new life.
Until July 2017, many Americans—this author included—had no idea that this “green” system relied on the massive export of recyclable materials to China. The system worked as follows: After emptying shipping containers of manufactured goods being imported into the US from China, state-based recycling agencies would fill the empty containers with metal, plastic, rubber, paper, cardboard, glass, and textile waste. Buying recyclables at a premium, China utilized what America and other western countries sold them as raw materials for manufacturing.
Ignoring the massive fossil fuel expenditure and resultant environmental impact involved in shipping materials across thousands of miles for thirty years, the U.S.’s “trashy” relationship with China did create a positive impact by diverting millions of tons of recyclables from landfills.
As time passed, however, the quality of materials the U.S. exported decreased—largely a result of the U.S. system of single-stream collection. Much of the waste was contaminated, leaving the materials unusable. China’s waste management systems couldn’t keep up, imports of recyclables added 10 to 13 percent to the country’s waste stream and nearly 1.3 to 3.5 million metric tons of waste was entering the ocean from China’s coastlines.
In 2013, China tried to mitigate the impact and keep the recycling loop alive with Operation Green Fence (OGF)—an aggressive inspection process aimed at improving the state of environmental degradation resulting from contaminated recycling.
Recyclers in the U.S. did not engage the citizenry in this change, rather opting to change policies and practices at the level of collections and processing. While more waste did pass inspection, a significant amount didn’t. In response, a trash cleaning market in Southeast Asia opened. Rejected recycling was sent to Southeast Asia, cleaned to meet China’s standards, and then sent to China when it passed inspection. The cost of really reforming our systems was seen as too much of an investment, at the time.
The implemented efforts in response to OGF would prove to be too little. With more recyclable materials available domestically in China, the effort to import and deal with the dirty, low-quality waste from abroad no longer made financial or environmental sense.
In July 2017, China announced Operation National Sword (ONS), banning 24 types of scrap—including plastic—and implementing contamination standards that current U.S. recycling systems couldn’t hope to meet. After the full implementation of ONS in March of 2018, countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and Thailand began to enter the recycling imports market. However shortly after opening their borders to foreign trash collection, the countries followed in China’s footsteps through measures like banning plastics and increasing the stringency of regulations around import-acceptable materials.
With no one to buy the massive amounts of recycling created by the seemingly depthless consumerism that is a hallmark of the west, recycling is collapsing in the United States.
Despite cities and institutions continuing to go through the motions of separating waste, a surprising amount of the waste sorted into “recycling” bins finds its ultimate end in an incinerator where it creates energy while causing air pollution or in landfills where it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite a massive increase in diversion of recyclables over the years, China did the actual work of recycling. Without China, there is very little recycling going on in the U.S.
Without infrastructural power, it’s easy to look at leadership and pass blame. However, in 2018, the United States generated 292.4 million tons of trash. If you are alive and buying in the U.S., you are a part of the reality that 12 percent of the world’s trash is created by 4 percent of the world’s population.
The following questions are designed to open you to where you may have the power to be a part of small-scale solutions to the U.S. recycling crisis.
Aspirational recycling is a behavior where consumers put items they believe should be recycled into a recycle bin, even though the items are not recyclable. One unrecyclable item can result in a whole load of recycling ending up in a landfill due to contamination.
Reflection Question 1: How can I participate properly in systems of recycling that are still operational or that are making a comeback?
If you’re interested in shifting from aspirational to actual recycling, the key lies in following the unique and specific guidelines for sorting and processing recycling before it ends up in your recycling bin. Check your local waste-management website for the specifics.
As painful as it may seem, put everything into the landfill bin that doesn’t match the specs for recycling where you live. If you really want to be a part of the solution, wash all your recycling before you throw it in the bin. If and when recycling makes a comeback near you, you’ll be ready for it.
Reflection Question 2: Are there recycling alternatives near me?
If the pain of how much can’t be recycled weighs heavily on your conscience, there may be recycling alternatives. For example, companies like TerraCycle believe that everything can be recycled, and are working to create recycling infrastructure to fill the gaps in what municipal waste management can handle. Look into the feasibility of adding these types of services to your home waste-management system.
As it turns out, the message of plastic recycling was nothing but a myth of marketing perpetuated by oil and gas companies for decades. The reality is that while all plastic can be recycled, the process to pick up, sort, and melt it down is expensive—and can only be done one or two times. With the reality being that it is much cheaper to make new plastic, the end result is that only 10 percent of plastic—since the beginning of plastic—has ever been recycled.
Reflection Question 1: Are there alternatives to the plastic things that I buy?
We all have habitual favorites that are made of and/or packaged in plastic—drinks, easy-take-out lunches, video games, electronics, and more.
There are emerging markets all over the planet that are tackling the plastic problem through the use of glass, metal, sustainable timber, and recycled paper. Some offer products in bulk or refillable containers or products with no packaging at all. Quite often, the more locally the product is produced, the less packaging it uses. Take a deep look at what you buy, and if it exists in something other than plastic, try to buy the alternative.
Reflection Question 2: Can I live without the things that currently don’t exist without plastic?
Often, there is no non-plastic alternative to the product you love. Do you need it to survive? If not, perhaps it’s time to do the right thing by divesting from that product.
If you’re feeling particularly sad about it, you could even write a letter to the company telling them that your choice to stop buying the product is based on the reality of plastic use and the lack of recycling happening with plastic.
The film “The Story of Stuff” explains that the value of U.S. citizens has been measured for decades by how much an individual consumes. Ninety-nine percent of what U.S. citizens buy ends up in the trash in six months, and the culture of consumerism results in one-third of the global responsibility for resource extraction.
Reflection Question 1: Where does my happiness really come from?
According to the Myths of Happiness by neuroscientist Sonja Lyubomirsky, many of the stories people tell themselves about happiness do not actually contain the conditions for lasting happiness. In the case of stuff, Lyubomirsky explains that an object’s greatest happiness boost happens at the time of purchase. As most objects become a part of our normal reality and depreciate in value, they no longer contribute anything significant to our sense of happiness very quickly after they make it into our hands.
According to Lyubomirsky, happiness is derived from experiences with others, volunteerism, acts of kindness for others, touch, finding an internal sense of the self, spending ample time in nature, and more. Taking the time to understand where your personal sense of happiness outside of stuff comes from, and using your time to do those things can replace the need to buy to create an internal sense of value. You can become a small-scale part of the solution to our recycling crisis in the process.
Reflection Question 2: Where can I buy things that are good for the earth?
If you like the part of your identity that rests on buying things, consider being a trend-maker in terms of what you buy.
In the wake of massive environmental degradation across our globe, some businesses who sell things are stepping up to do it in a way that creates a regenerative impact. Benefit-Corporations or B-Corps, for example, have all agreed to conduct business in a way that is good for people and the planet. E-Commerce websites like Kindhumans are providing ethical, safe, fair-trade, environmentally compassionate products, and creating a positive impact for kids, the water crisis in Flint, and our earth in the process.
Look for companies that use words like “closed-loop” and “regenerative,” those that have “end-of-life” plans for their products, and companies that encourage the repair of damaged products, or upcycling of products that can’t be restored. You can also look for products that come from recycling and upcycling in the first place.
According to Recycle Across America (RAA), eliminating confusion at the recycling bin is a viable way to help recyclables become competitive with low oil prices and low landfill prices. While RAA works to create a simpler, universal system for recycling labeling in the U.S., knowledge-sharing about current recycling best-practices can be a way to be a part of the solution to the current crisis.
Reflection Question 1: What can I do when I see issues with the system of recycling where I am?
In Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors point out that change is difficult because it requires reprogramming deeply ingrained habits that people are often enacting unthinkingly. They point out that for things to change, someone has to start acting differently to smooth the path of entry into change so that others can see the benefit of changing.
If you’re seeing issues with recycling, be the change yourself. Choose your path to be the solution (e.g., recycle competently, ditch plastic, or buy less), start doing it on whatever scale you can, and be vocal about your choices.
Reflection Question 2: How can I bring up issues with recycling to other people?
If you’re already a local recycling guru, you may experience that others come to you out of curiosity about what you’re doing that is different. If you’re not naturally attracting others to change by shining your bright light, try bringing up the issue without judgment.
According to the late Marshall Rosenburg, violence in communication occurs when we utilize judgment, finger-pointing, criticism, and other evaluative language to try to get what we need. Before bringing up the issues you’re experiencing with the recycling habits of others, sit down and run your issues through a non-violent communication framework so you have the most effective words to create the collective change you’d like to see.
For example, you can approach your boss (or friends) with: “When I observe that our company (or friend group) doesn’t follow proper protocols for recycling here at work (or at home), I feel ashamed because I need to be a part of something keeping our earth healthy and vibrant and alive. Would you be willing to talk to me about this?”