Recycling has grown every year. Every time we turn around, there are new materials to recycle. Over the past decade, programs have evolved from dual stream to single stream. The number of materials being recycled has continued to expand. So all is well; correct? Maybe not.
Today, many communities accept plastics numbered 1-7. For those who are unfamiliar with the codes, historically, recycling programs accepted plastic codes 1&2, as these were the easiest to recycle. The other codes have always had limited markets, and thus have been more slowly added to existing recycling programs.
Now we fast forward to China and the great market expansions of the last ten years. As the Chinese economy has grown, recycling markets have started to accept virtually every manufactured product made of almost any material. Why? Because China has been willing to accept these materials, sort them and add them to their raw material stream; or in the alternative, landfill what they cannot use. At the expense of local manufacturing, many communities jumped on the bandwagon to China and started collecting more materials.
Unfortunately, at the same time, these communities started to become sloppy about how the materials were collected. Since prices were on the rise (due to demand) quality demands were being lowered. Thus, the mix of materials was becoming dirtier and dirtier. This also occurred at the expense of local markets.
Except for those recycling professionals who saw through this sham, the rest of the recycling community turned a blind eye to the promises being made. The result has been a decrease in material quality and a dearth of raw material available for the domestic market.
As has been noted in prior posts and the news, China has been willing to accept the contamination and bury the residue that cannot be used at home. Now this has changed.
Responding to concerns about pollution, China has recently announced the closing of a “Green Curtain.” In other words, China has announced that it will no longer accept contaminated loads, loads with materials that do not have real post consumer uses and finally loads that contain a poor quality of materials.
We now come full circle. What is the solution?
Perhaps it is time that we consider the end life of a product before we make that product. In other words, build recyclability into products before they are made.
This is not new. William McDonough in his book “Cradle to Cradle” has been discussing the need to consider products as precursors to new products rather than potential waste for many years. Clearly this makes more sense than considering what goes out the back door as waste.
We have become sloppy in our recycling under the guise of making it far to easy for the generator to recycle without consequence. It is time to change this.