OUR Recycling Crisis
We are in the middle of a recycling crisis.
This notion is conveyed without reserve.
No dramatics necessary.
Just the facts;
In a nutshell, the (main) problem is twofold.
First, Prices for Recyclables Have Collapsed.
Ironically, humans have historically understood the importance of recycling Earth’s resources. Our ancestors recycled metal by melting it down and refashioning it into new tools or weapons (as did our grandparents to fight the second World War). Even the broken pieces of the statue, Colossus of Rhodes—considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—were recycled for scrap.
The industrial revolution of the early 1900’s forged the way for contemporary recycling businesses and trade associations dealing in scrap metal and paper. Peddling scrap materials sustained many families during the Great Depression because these items were limited and necessary, and hence, valuable.
Modern recycling as we know it, mostly for plastics, was not created out of economic necessity, but rather a conscious desire to reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfills or incinerators. Starting in the 1970s through the 90’s curbside recycling collection took off (although many American towns, especially in rural areas, still lack this basic service). The influx of materials now being bought, used, discarded, and then collected across the U.S. and Europe has created an inflation type scenario in the recycling markets. The cost of collecting, transporting, and sorting the used materials now exceeds the revenue generated from selling them.
The problem is, that we now create so much waste, the sheer excess of materials render them invaluable.
Second, Last Year China Went and Halted Imports of U.S. Recyclables.
Since the beginning of the 21st Century our excess recyclables have been shipped overseas to China who purchased the raw materials—mostly scrap metals, waste paper, and plastics, which are cheaper than virgin materials—to advance their growing GDP. The recyclable items were then turned into new products or packaging supplies and shipped back to America and Europe. Scrap and waste became the 6th largest U.S. export to China.
This all worked out fine for several decades—U.S. waste facilities were compensated for collecting recyclables. China used or discarded them. We turned a blind eye to the massive amount of resources spent on what was supposed to be “good for the environment.” Meanwhile, we also pretended not to notice that an enormous amount of our exported plastics actually found their way out to the ocean. But, when we did notice, we blamed it on China. The logic.
This unsustainable practice came to a halt last summer when China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it would no longer accept imports of 24 varieties of solid waste, including certain plastics and unsorted paper. In 2018, the ban was expanded to dozens more types of recyclable materials. China’s notice to the WTO complained that large amounts of dirty and hazardous materials were mixed in with shipments, the disposal of which was causing widespread environmental damage. Apparently, as we got more efficient in collecting our recyclables, we also got very sloppy in sorting them.
The ban will impact at least $400 million worth of scrap exports from the U.S. to China.
This move wasn’t wholly unexpected. After all, China now has to deal with the recyclables generated from its growing consumer economy. Yet, the global recycling community is stunned by China's actions and waste management companies had (have) no contingency plan. This has led to recyclable waste pilling up in landfills with no where to go while transferring the costs to consumers. The city of Queensland, Australia is going to start burying its recyclable trash in landfills because it's cheaper than paying for contractors to recycle it.
If you're sensing a tone of absurdity here, it is purposely aimed at the near complete failure to innovate in recycling methods and technologies.
At the fact that humans are the most intelligent species on the planet; WE CAN PUT A HUMAN ON THE MOON—which at the time, served little purpose other than to one-up Russia.
Now the stakes are real. It's only our life-sustaining planet at risk here.
Yet, we still find ourselves the only species that creates unrecyclable waste. And, we can’t even figure out what to do with the waste we CAN recycle.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars getting people to recycle over the past 25 years but haven’t spent enough time developing the end markets for the output streams.” Planet Ark.
Well, what now?
When you have one, get back to us. ♲
(Note: despite the tone of this article, the author is a die-hard patriot. All the more reason why she can criticize our country's recycling failures. This is BS. We can do better.)