Dirty Business: what really happens to your recycling
Millions of Americans dutifully fill their recycling bins each week, motivated by the knowledge that they’re doing something good for the environment. But little do they know, there’s a recycling crisis unfolding.
Starting as early as 2017, municipalities across the country, from Douglas County, Oregon to Nogales, Arizona to Broadway, Virginia, to Franklin, New Hampshire, began landfilling many recyclables or simply canceling their recycling programs altogether. The impetus for this disconcerting change? China.
For decades, the country was content to accept, process, and transform recycled materials from across the globe, but no longer. In July 2017, the government announced new policies that would effectively ban imports of most recyclables, particularly plastics. They went into effect last March. Considering that China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, this is a huge deal.
Where once China offered a market for the world’s plastic bottles, tubs, and other packaging to be turned into – for example – polyester clothing, now, that market is gone. This means that recycling costs have skyrocketed. A few years ago, Franklin, New Hampsire could sell recyclables for $6 per ton. Now, it costs the town $125 per ton to recycle that same stuff!
Municipalities across the country are facing this startling arithmetic, so hundreds are choosing the drastically cheaper option: throw most traditionally recycled materials in the trash, instead.
While that might sound horrifying, Thomas Kinnaman, an environmental economist from Bucknell University, says it’s actually a blessing in disguise.
“China’s ban may actually reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans,” he told NPR’s Planet Money podcast. “China was not very careful about what got into their oceans for a long period of time, and if some of the plastic piles were just too corrupted they could do whatever they wanted with it.”
Moreover, landfilling waste is not the evil many assume it to be. Modern landfills in the developed world are highly regulated, with sophisticated systems to protect groundwater, methods of compacting trash as tightly as possible, and even ways of siphoning off methane gas and burning it to produce electricity. Despite the myth that we’re running out of landfill space, current estimates indicate that the U.S. has about 58 years until we need to build additional facilities.
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While plastic and glass should probably be crushed and buried in a landfill, aluminum, tin, and paper – especially cardboard – should absolutely be recycled.
“Why It’s Probably Better for the Planet to Throw Plastic in the Trash,” by Ross Pomeroy, Real Clear Science, July 15, 2019
Why your recyclables might have no place to go