As you may recall in my recent blog post, I noted that one of the problems with recycling today is the fact that we have become less responsible for the materials that we sort for recycling pick up. This observation was strongly supported in a recent article on the Green Curtain issue that was published in The Christian Science Monitor on June 19*.
As noted in the article, the Chinese Government has made it clear that they will no longer allow “foreign rubbish” into their country. Since the Green Curtain program has begun, more than 800,000 tons of illegal waste has been stopped by Chinese inspections.
This should bother us on several levels. The first is simply a human level. What gives us the right to send our garbage to another country where in many cases you have women making $15 per day using a box cutter to remove labels from soda bottles? If this were happening to women in this country, there would be a revolution.
The second level is deeper and relates to people’s behavior when it comes to handling their own generation of recycling and solid waste. Essentially, after all of these years of education on how to separate recycling from garbage, we still manage to contaminate the recycling component by more than 20% on average.
Why? In part it is because we have made it “easier” to recycle by allowing more and more commingling of materials. Thus, taking away generator responsibility for the materials that they generate while not teaching the generator how to keep garbage out of the recycling stream.
That system, commingling of recycling with different recycling can work, but only if there is a sound and consistent education program in place. Indeed, in the best programs, total contamination is less than 2% and that is captured before the material is shipped overseas.
But commingling is only a part of the issue, and as it is the norm today, we should focus on education as a solution to possible contamination of recyclables in that system.
The bigger problem as noted in the article relates to sheer volume. 75% of our Aluminum scrap. 60% of our paper and 50% of our plastic are shipped to China. This begs the question…why?
The answer is painfully clear; “Shipping companies, seeking to cut their losses, offer bargain rates on their westbound freighters: It is cheaper to ship a 40 foot container full of iron scrap from Los Angeles to a Chinese Port than it is to send it by train to a foundry in Chicago…”
If you were a dealer in these commodities, what would you do?
Compounding this problem, Robin Wiener, president of ISRI stated correctly that “If the U.S. border were closed, most of the scrap that is exported today would go to landfill…We don’t have the capacity to absorb it all.”
That’s right, the U.S. does not have enough recycling or manufacturing demand for all of the recyclable materials that we collect.
When the cost of transportation, and the lack of domestic manufacturing are taken into account, it is no wonder that we have become “over-dependent on China.” This of course means that if the Chinese markets drop, all recycling markets drop.
Where does this leave us? That is a big question.
Many of the big sorting companies are realizing that they need to put better sorting systems into place. These cost large amounts of money and notwithstanding their efforts, really cannot replace a good and consistent education program.
Here is a crazy notion. Support U.S. made products that are manufactured out of recycled materials. Yes, an idea as old as the recycling programs in the U.S. still seems to hold. It isn’t recycling until it is made into something new.
One thing is certain. If we in the U.S. do not change our pattern of recycling, the entire system is in jeopardy of economic collapse due to the contamination of the recycling stream.
*The article was found during my review of Enviropolitics. This publication, prepared by my friend and colleague Frank Brill, is an excellent source of information. It is a summary of major articles on environmental issues from publications throughout the U.S. If you are interested in this publication, you can get a 30 – day no obligation free trial by going to the link:
Click here for more information regarding Enviropolitics.