Recycling drop-off center. How to recycle at home
Drop-off center in Bowling Green Ohio. That man is looking for boxes he can use. My picture

Once upon a time, China eagerly bought recyclables from all over the world. Not anymore. It had to put too much of what it bought in its own landfills. People elsewhere in the world didn’t know how to recycle. In January 2018, it clamped down and refused to accept any more shipments that failed to meet stringent requirements. That sparked a worldwide recycling crisis.

We can’t blame China. Many of the facilities that sort and bale our recyclables had as much as a 25% contamination rate. In other words, a quarter of the product they sold was either sorted into the wrong bale or didn’t belong in recycling in the first place.

Would you keep buying a product if you had to throw out a quarter of it?

We have a recycling crisis in America in part because we never really learned how to recycle. Another big part? China used to buy so much that they priced American companies out of the market. 

Now, American companies have a new opportunity to buy recyclables and make new products from them. It will take a while before enough new companies scale up enough to make a difference.

How not to recycle

Around the beginning of this century, recycling programs started to expand what they were willing to accept. Instead of just one or two kinds of plastic, for example, they accepted almost any kind.

We, the public, responded by putting all kinds of stuff in our recycling containers, whether it belonged there or not. So much wrong stuff wound up at the curb that it even has a name: aspirational recycling.

But the processing centers can’t handle Styrofoam™. It breaks into little pieces and contaminates everything else. And they can’t handle plastic bags or other plastic films. They tangle and sometimes damage the sorting equipment. 

For that matter, so do wire coat hangers, strings of Christmas lights, plastic six-pack rings, electric cords, and so on.

And when I say all kinds of stuff, I mean things that should have just gone into the trash. Otherwise good paper with grease or food waste on it, for example. It’s impossible to clean it up to make recycled paper from it. And once it gets into the recycling truck, it’s likely to contaminate more paper.

As another example, that plastic ketchup bottle is recyclable, but not if it still has a lot of ketchup in it. Too many people fail to rinse out bottles and jars. Even a bottle with water in it causes trouble.

It’s that kind of contamination that lies at the root of the recycling crisis.

But it gets worse. Recycling centers have reported having to deal with bowling balls, scrap metal, food waste, clothing, and even dirty diapers! Do some people even care how to recycle?

How to recycle correctly

First, check your town’s rules. They have probably changed. 

For one thing, towns used to get money for the recycling they collected. Now, they have to pay so much a ton for the recycling facility to take it. Many have stopped taking glass, simply because it’s so heavy.

Many have started to restrict the kinds of plastic they’ll accept, too. In part, that’s because without restrictions, too many “aspirational recyclers” put too many of the wrong things in their recycling containers. By limiting to bottles, jars, tubs, and jugs, for example, simplifies the rules.

For another thing, China stopped accepting some low-grade plastic and paper entirely, regardless of how clean they are. It just doesn’t have a market. And, of course, too many municipalities remain dependent on selling to China. It will take a while for the American market to grow enough to end the recycling crisis. We’ll get there faster the sooner we learn how to recycle.

Once you’re clear on what can go in your recycling, make sure it’s clean. That doesn’t mean clean enough to eat from. Just rinse it out to make sure that nothing it contained can leak out and contaminate something else. Or spoil enough to be a health hazard for recycling workers.

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What a Waste: Trash, Recycling, and Protecting our Planet / Jess French

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