Stop 'wish-cycling': China says no more to recyclables, so now many discards stay closer to home

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Powering the Bottom Line

Doron Amiran (doron@climateprotection.org) is electric vehicle program manager at the Center for Climate Protection. Powering the Bottom Line (nbbj.news/powering) is a regular column by staff at the center.

Recycling has become the norm throughout the United States. Blue recycling bins are as common as trash cans in schools, parks, businesses and homes. Curbside recycling, which began in earnest in a few California cities in the 1980s, now captures 25% of the waste stream.

But much of the material that we have diligently thrown into recycling bins has filled cargo ships returning to China, to be processed and turned into inexpensive paper and plastic products. Even more problematic is that much of what we have shipped to China does not get recycled at all, but gets dumped or burned.

In a dramatic policy reversal last year, China stopped accepting many types of scrap material, including mixed paper and most kinds of plastics. That means that the over 7 million tons of recyclables have to find a new home.

Markets for secondary materials have become harder to find, and the cost of recycling has gone up. As a result, some communities have suspended recycling efforts, or quietly begun taking recyclables to landfills or incinerators.

Thankfully, that is not the case in Sonoma and Marin counties. Celia Furber, of waste hauler Recology, says “I would like to reassure all of our customers in Sonoma and Marin counties that we are recycling their materials,” because “recovering resources is at the core of our values as a company, and we have secured alternative recycling markets to do just that.”

That said, Furber mentions they have had to focus their efforts on receiving clean recyclables from customers. This means educating the public on the importance of empty and dry containers and dry/unsoiled paper and cardboard in the recycling bin.

Whether or not we can continue to ship bales of mixed paper to Malaysia, or send our high-value plastics to Alabama, remains to be seen. Cheap recycling covers up an ugly truth. We make too much trash.

Between 1985 and 2015, the U.S. waste stream increased by 60%, while our population grew only 30%. We now generate more than 262 million tons of waste every year, or 5 pounds a day for every person.

China’s policy change has upended the market. They are no longer willing to be our dumping ground, unless we can provide materials at less than 1% contamination.

But in most commingled streams, including here in Sonoma County, contamination is somewhere between 20%-30%. That means that 20%-30% of the material doesn’t belong in the recycling bin: shrink wrap, plastic bags, greasy pizza boxes and the like.

It is time to ask fundamental questions about how we make, package and use things.

Commingled recycling can only work if we reduce contamination and focus on materials that have inherent value, such as tin, aluminum, plastic containers, glass bottles and jars, and fibers like clean cardboard. We need to stop the practice of “wish-cycling,” or throwing dubious items into the recycling because it makes us feel better about ourselves (it shouldn’t), or we hope that it will get recycled (it won’t), or we believe that somebody is going to sort through everything and pull out all the twist ties and bottle caps and plastic bags (they won’t).

Instead, the sorting process slows down, machines get gummed up, contaminated loads get rejected, and end up in a landfill or incinerator while driving up the cost of recycling for everyone.

Powering the Bottom Line

Doron Amiran (doron@climateprotection.org) is electric vehicle program manager at the Center for Climate Protection. Powering the Bottom Line (nbbj.news/powering) is a regular column by staff at the center.

One of the biggest problems is our reliance on single-use petroleum-based plastic. Plastics are a super product that do an excellent job protecting food, while being really light, and inexpensive to ship. It is impossible to imagine our economy without some kind of engineered multi-layered packaging materials. However, plastics that are not in container form invariably end up in the landfill, or worse, contaminating and devaluing recycling loads.

As with so many things, Sonoma County businesses are crafting innovative solutions.

Amy’s Kitchen, which packages and sells millions of prepared meals every year, is working hard to develop new materials that meet the difficult requirements that are essential to getting their meals to market: food-safe, durable enough to protect the product, recyclable or compostable, and cost-competitive. That is a tall order, but as Renaud des Rosiers, sustainability manager at Amy’s says, his company is “committed to working with our partners to develop renewable, recapturable materials that help to further advance and improve on the currently available systems.”

Amy’s is studying and testing bio-based compostable materials that are renewable on the front end and can be captured on the back end through industrial composting systems. Curbside green bin composting might be a familiar sight in Sonoma County but systems like ours are relatively rare across the country and significant development of local and national composting infrastructure is needed to increase the acceptance of compostable packaging materials.

In the meantime, what should we do to ensure that the items we think we are recyclable actually get recycled?

According to Recology’s Furber, “if you aren’t sure, find out. And when it comes to plastics, only put containers in your blue bin, and make sure they are empty, clean and dry. And don’t trap your recyclables in a plastic bag!”

Perhaps we can simply avoid buying or using that plastic bag in the first place? A truly friendly climate hierarchy should revert to the old saw: reduce, reuse and (only then) recycle.

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