Uncertain About Recycling? You’re Not Alone

Caroline Griffith

Recycling is easy, right? You just look for the little triangle symbol that says the material is recyclable, then you toss it in the blue bin and away it goes to be magically transformed into a new product. For many of us who live in the era of the 3 Rs, that is the extent of our relationship with our recyclable waste. For a long time we implicitly trusted that all was well with recycling, that the system was working and that we, as consumers, were helping to clean up the planet. Then, in 2013, China’s Operation Green Fence began putting on notice all international shipments of contaminated recyclable materials. Finally, in 2018, China announced a ban on importing scrap plastics for recycling and many of us thought, “Wait a minute? We send our plastic all the way to China? And then what happens to it? And what is going to happen now that they don’t want it?”

One of the reasons for the Chinese ban on plastics was contamination, something that is still a problem in our local recycling system. Contamination can mean either recyclable items that contain food residue (like that peanut butter jar you didn’t clean out), or non recyclable items, i.e. actual trash, being mixed in with recycling. According to Linda Wise, general manager of local waste-hauler, Recology, at the time of the Chinese ban (a decision they called National Sword) U.S. contamination rates were as high as 30%. This left waste hauling and recycling companies in the tough position of figuring out how to reduce contamination rates and deal with the mountains of plastic we produce every day. Locally, Recology responded by opening the Samoa processing plant and since September of 2018 has processed over 17,000 tons of recyclable material from Humboldt County, Del Norte County and as far north as Ashland, OR.

Through this processing facility, which employs individuals (most of whom are paid around minimum wage) at massive conveyor belts sorting through our commingled recyclables, Recology has been able to reduce local contamination. In fact, our local facility was the first in the state to be able to meet the <5% threshold for contamination that makes our waste more marketable (though, since the onset of COVID-19, contamination rates have risen to around 20%). From the Samoa processing center where it is sorted and baled, our recyclables then head to market. One issue that Recology is facing right now is that it often costs more to process recyclables and bring them to market than they actually receive when selling those materials. The fact that recycling is tied to the market rather than being the responsibility of the producer has left consumers and waste haulers with the onus of dealing with this waste and, as is often the case, developing nations and those at the bottom of the economic spectrum bear the burden. 

Because what happens to our waste after it hits the commodities market is that it often ends up being shipped to developing nations for processing. According to Recology, 50% of recycled commodities stay in the domestic market, but 15% go to Vietnam, 11% goes to both South Korea and Myanmar, 5% ends up in Thailand, 4% in Taiwan, 2% to Indonesia, 1% each to Malaysia and China and less than 1% goes to Mexico. Do a quick internet search for “Malaysia/Vietnam/Myanmar plastic recycling” and you will find page after page of photos of people sifting through mountains of plastic. You’ll also find accounts of crime, human rights abuses, and shocking pollution. The plastic is sorted by type (according to Recology, there are 48 thousand different types of plastic, enough of which is produced per year to circle the earth four times), shredded, washed, “compounded” (melted and smashed together) and made into nurdles, the raw material that will become new plastic products. In the process, plastic shreds befoul waterways and the fumes from melting plastic affect those in close proximity. Another way that plastic is “recycled” is by being burned as fuel. As Wise pointed out in a recent presentation to the Arcata City Council, one reason that China decided to reject our recyclables was “We were marginalizing this country by sending them all of our trash.”

Indonesian landfill filled with American recycling waste. Photo still: Story of Plastic

According to Maggie Gainer of Zero Waste Humboldt, one of the things that got us to this point was a shift about 10 years ago to make recycling easier for consumers in the U.S.. Waste hauling companies introduced commingling and automated trucks and consumers no longer had to think about their waste, where it came from and how it tied into their consumption habits; they could simply throw it in the bin and away it went. Policy makers and those in the waste industry also moved away from talking about recycling as a way to conserve natural resources to talking about it as “landfill diversion.” The first principle of Zero Waste is, “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” When we changed the definition and motivation of why we recycle, it changed our relationship to our waste. When recycling is simply about diverting waste from the landfill, then baling it up and shipping it somewhere else accomplishes that mission. 

What is often left out of the discussion about recycling is the responsibility of those who are creating the disposable materials in the first place. Ever since the 70s, the plastics industry has sought to place the blame for plastic pollution on the consumer. The now-famous “Crying Indian” commercial made by Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council in 1971 taught a generation of Americans that, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Again, no mention of the producers, which is not surprising when we learn that Keep America Beautiful was founded by American Can Co. and the Owens-Illinois Glass Co., who were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Co. 

Plastic waste being burned at an Indonesian facility. Story of Plastic

The modern day equivalent of this is the non-profit Alliance to End Plastic Waste whose members include Dow Chemicals, Exxon Mobil, Formosa Plastics, and PepsiCo among other petrochemical and plastics companies. Though the name sounds great, this is another case of diverting attention away from the real cause of the problem; if these companies really wanted to end single-use plastic waste, they could simply stop making it in the first place. What they are really seeking to do is make a profit off of plastic waste. According to its website, “Our members are committed to share their expertise, fund and demonstrate projects and programs that will recover and create value from plastic waste. Ultimately, proving the investment market of plastic waste to private investors, development banks and governments to deliver truly transformational change.” To them, plastic waste isn’t a problem so much as an investment opportunity waiting to be realized. These companies make money through the extraction of fossil fuels that become plastics, and now they are looking to make a profit, and win public support, by getting in on the recycling industry.

Gainer advises that what we need to do to break this cycle is revisit the principles of Zero Waste and rethink our systems. She also advises that we stop putting all of our brainpower and financial resources into recycling. “When I give talks about Zero Waste, I tell people to close their eyes and I play music from 1974. That was when the first recycling drop-off services began in Humboldt County,” she says. “A home cost $30,000 then. Now it’s 40 years later. The whole world has changed. It’s time to rethink recycling. It’s time to shift toward other systems, some of which have been around forever but are now improved.” There are alternatives to the current system, she reminds us. “Reuse, returnable, refillable systems. Let’s focus on what we can do now. We can change our behaviors and change our systems.”

One thing we can do now is support the Plastics Free California Initiative which will charge corporate plastic manufacturers a penny tax on single-use plastic packages to fund plastic recycling and environmental clean-up of plastic pollution. The initiative has qualified for the ballot in 2022 and will Reduce the amount of single use plastic sold in California by 25% by 2030, reduce the amount of plastic pollution in California by ensuring that all single-use plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030, and institute a statewide ban on non-recyclable plastic Styrofoam™ food containers.

Though China’s decision to reject our plastic has thrown our system for a loop, this may be a blessing in disguise. We now have to take a hard look at our production, consumption and waste systems and figure out how to bring them into the 21st century. We have the power and the opportunity to stop this flood of plastic at the source, and it’s past time that we do.