US recycling may be changing soon, here’s what you can do

Reduce, reuse, recycle has been the motto for years, and nearly every household in America has a recycling bin. But a report by 538 is now warning us that recycling might change drastically soon. What is going on and what does this mean for people looking to responsibly dispose of what they use? Here’s the quick down and dirty of it.

What Happen:

The short version is that China has made a law to drastically clean up its recycling programs, but that begs the question,  what does a law in China have to do with US curbside recycling? Let’s start from the beginning. The vast majority of US communities currently operate under something called single stream recycling, which means that the average us household throws everything into one “recycle” bin. Those materials get taken to something called a materials recovery plant, which uses machines and manpower to separate the goods into different materials and their usability. Click here if you’re curious about what that looks like. The thing is, while this is very convenient for American households and has led to a large increase in the amount of materials being recycled, it also causes quite a large increase in contaminated materials being put into a recycler. Contaminated here means anything from food contaminated items to items that can’t generally be recycled at most recovery plants.

Most recycling plants, just like most other industrialized processes in our globalized economy, is not done in the US but shipped abroad. Until recently, China was the biggest buyer of US recycling waste. However, China just recently passed a law saying they will no longer buy recyclable waste to be recovered unless it is mostly clean and recoverable. The reason they cite for this is to “protect China's environmental interests and people's health [by banning] solid wastes that are highly polluting.” So yeah, so you know how some of the world’s most polluted rivers are Chinese? Yeah, that’s not all of that is China’s waste.

The US is currently scrambling to find new buyers for their plastic recycling, mostly nations in Southeast Asia. The worry is that because China accepted so much waste, there is no way the US can make up for the loss of it as a buyer, and plastic waste is building up at docks and in municipalities, which might lead to frustrated townships just shipping the “recycled” garbage to the landfill anyway. However, ultimately, even if the US does find other buyers, this move from China demonstrates that it won’t be a permanent and sustainable solution. Using other countries as a “dumping ground” for waste isn’t sustainable, and switching from one main dumping ground to a bunch of smaller one is not a real solution. [Tweet that quote]

What you can do:

The first and most major thing we can do to help this issue is to stop needing to recycle things in the first place. 2018 was the year single use straws became a hot button issue, and there are plenty of other plastic products that can be easily replaced. Check out Zero-Waste bloggers like Trash is for Tossers, Zero-Waste Home, and Paris to Go for ideas on how to simply not throw out anything. Another great idea is upcycling, which as we explain here is about moving the materials up the value chain instead of down, meaning that item will live a brand new life entirely.

Second, when we do need to recycle, we need to know what to recycle. Some items can be recycled easily, some can be recycled only in specific locations and facilities, and some cannot be recycled at all. Knowing this will help make the job of the materials recovery Facilities plant much easier and make the recycling cleaner so that it’s easier to meet the higher recycling standards. Here is a guide to becoming a better recycler

Can recycle

  • Tin cans
  • Aluminum cans
  • Clean rigid plastics (like milk jugs) marked 1-6. Some locations accept 7.
  • Dry cardboard
  • Paper mail, phonebooks, etc
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Brown paper bags
  • Clear, brown, and green glass (such as beer and wine bottles) as long as they’re clean

Only Recycle at Specific Locations

  • Electronics and batteries. Check local area for specifics.
  • Grocery bags, as these clog up normal recycling machines
  • Safety razors, as these are just as dangerous for the worker as the machine
  • Ink cartridges.
  • Plastic utensils, as they’re facility dependent (but this is also one of the easiest zero-waste swaps to make)
  • Lightbulbs

Cannot Recycle

  • Broken glass (please don’t hurt the plant worker)
  • Greased cardboard, such as pizza boxes and Chinese take out.
  • Shredded paper
  • Styrofoam
  • Used napkins
  • Plastic or metal caps
  • Yogurt cups
  • Bubble Wrap
  • Aerosol cans, oil cans, and paint cans
  • Mirrors

The third thing to do is, of course, support your local recycling initiatives and help them step up their game. Some cities are capable of getting recycling clean enough to be sent over to China and meet their clean solid waste regulations. Other areas can open recycling plants of their own, bringing jobs that were overseas back into the country. Find out what your area is doing and see what local initiatives you can support.

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