Looking for Alternatives to Recycling

In 2018, recycling got a lot harder. New rules against contaminated recycling materials in China meant that the world, North America especially, could no longer treat recycling as someone else’s problem. An attempt to adjust by shipping recycling materials to other Asian manufacturing countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia for processing only resulted in stiffer enforcement of environmental regulations in those countries.

In truth, the crackdown was long overdue. The potential ecological harm of carrying trash from one region to another far outweighs the value of the materials involved. Ants, insects, rodents, and other unwanted pests go wherever the garbage goes. And though municipal recycling materials are supposed to be harmless materials such as paper, plastic, glass, and metal, the dirty secret of the recycling business is that these shipments typically consist of 10 to 20 percent garbage.

The correct solution is to process, separate, and clean recycling materials in the same place that they come from. Every state, province, and major city should have its own capacity for sorting out recycling collections. These factory-style facilities separate out at least the major recycling materials — polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene, polypropylene, paper, clear glass, colored glass, aluminum, steel, and usually a few more — so that each can be sent in truckloads to factories that produce those materials.

It was already the case that only about half of U.S. recycling materials can be sold for recycling. Most of the rest goes to incineration and landfill. Paper that gets wet, for example, has to be discarded. Oil bottles and butter tubs are more likely to be incinerated than recycled.

Now that North American companies can no longer so easily export recycling materials, there is an excess of materials. Municipal recycling programs are collecting twice as much as factories can handle. It will take years to build enough new factories to bring the flow of materials back into balance.

In the meantime, materials are piling up. For materials like aluminum, steel, and clear glass, this is probably fine. A mountain of crushed aluminum cans can simply sit outdoors for ten or twenty years until the world is ready, and that will literally happen in some places. But that strategy will not work for paper or plastic. They cannot sit outdoors and are not valuable enough to be warehoused for years. To a limited extent, paper can be composted. Given their choice of materials, plastic recycling plants are probable choosing to focus on soda and water bottles. Most other plastics and some paper are able to be incinerated, but incineration capacity is also limited, so a significant fraction of them are ending up in landfills.

In the current market, mixed recycling materials no longer have any market value. They were never worth much, but the $8 per ton that a town might get for recycling materials would offset a small fraction of the cost of disposing of the trash from the same town. Starting in late 2018, towns had to pay to get rid of recycling materials.

People in general can help by doing a better job at keeping garbage out of the recycling collection. But a town would have reduce contaminants by a factor of four to meet the standards for international shipment of mixed recycling materials. In a world where many people mistakenly believe that styrofoam cups are a recyclable material (polystyrene is reyclable in theory but not in practice), a shift that large won’t happen easily.

There is not much most of us can do beyond the commonly repeated idea of buying fewer things so we can generate less waste. For a few of us, though, there is something we can do. There may be ways of diverting materials before they fall into the recycling stream. Maybe we have a place to compost paper, or we have a wood stove that in winter can also burn some of our cardboard, polyethylene, polypropylene, the same way we already toss pizza boxes and styrene cups into the fire.

It is counterintuitive to think of these valuable materials as something to burn. For the next few years, though, anyone who has a way to keep burnable or compostable materials out of the recycling stream will be helping the system as a whole deal with an unfamiliar excess of materials and a shortage of capacity — and they’ll be saving money for their municipal recycling program. This should not become a permanent habit. Probably by 2030, there will be more recycling capacity in North America, and then the recycling sector will again be asking for all the clean recyclable materials we have to offer.

Fish Nation Information Station | Rick Aster’s World | Rick Aster