Is Recycling Still Worth It? My Quest to Find Out
I used to think I understood recycling. Especially as a child, I would get a sort of civic elation from remembering to throw a bottle, can, or cardboard box in the recycling bin.
I pictured it all being crunched up and molded into something entirely new, from a bicycle to a boat!
Of course, as an adult, I know that’s not how it works—and I feel I’ve grown increasingly confused about the whole process.
To add to my perplexity, I’ve read many headlines that have proclaimed China is done taking our recyclables and other scrap, and now we are destined to swim in it, such as, “China’s Ban on Imported Recyclables Is Drowning U.S. Cities in Trash.” (http://fortune.com/2019/03/20/china-plastic-pollution-recycling-import-ban-national-sword/)
What?! I’ve always told myself it’s important to recycle just so that cities DON’T suffocate themselves in trash. And when did China start taking our recyclables anyway?
Headlines like the one above made me realize just how little I understood about the recycling process.
So, I decided to educate myself about what really happens to my recycling and what we as consumers can do to perhaps make the whole process more efficient—and I wanted to know what China’s ban on accepting recyclables means for my community as well as the world, and what we can do about it. After reaching out to the head of recycling for my city—Buffalo, New York's recycling director Susan Attridge—here’s what I found.
So, What’s Going on With China?
In short, the answer is National Sword. I recently listened to an in-depth podcast episode of 99% Invisible about the issue (https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/national-sword/).
National Sword is China’s ban on foreign recyclables, which it had been collecting from the world since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Before then, China took in the world’s recyclables in the same shipping containers they used for selling products around the world—it made more fiscal sense for them than returning with empty containers.
While the main reason China is curbing back on accepting recyclables is unclear, many believe a heart-wrenching documentary called Plastic China has something to do with it. The film focuses on a little girl in China who can’t get a proper education because she must help her parents sort through huge mounds of plastics while also helping care for her younger siblings. The documentary shows the little girl washing her face in plastic-polluted water, eating fish that have suffocated on plastic, and living very near a plastic-shredding machine that produces micro-particles of plastic small enough to breath in.
Right now, China has banned four categories and 24 types of recyclable imports, but this could lead to banning all materials by 2020.
What This Means for My Community
After learning all of this, I got a little freaked out. I also saw headlines saying that some communities have even resorted to burning their recycling without a place to send it (https://www.wired.com/story/since-chinas-ban-recycling-in-the-us-has-gone-up-in-flames/)!
And not surprisingly, the burning of these materials can cause in increase in the risk of toxic pollution plumes near the incinerators.
Susan Attridge, Buffalo’s Director of Recycling, responded to this saying Buffalo is not adjusting anything in light of National Sword. But she does know some other local communities, such as Amherst and Cheektowaga, are reducing their “recycling menus” (or the items that can be recycled) and they are reducing their services.
However, she seemed confident that the US recycling industry will be able to survive China’s major scale back in accepting materials—it’s just a matter of time before a solution is worked out.
“I am hopeful that in this time, the recycling markets situation will straighten itself out,” she said.
Attridge also says recycling is still a valuable way to lesson our damage to the environment.
“I think recycling is the one way that everyone can impact their ecological footprint,” she said.
How It Works
With this good news about recycling still being viable, let's dive into how the process actually works—at least in Buffalo, New York. (You can see for yourself by checking out this video that Attridge verified: https://youtu.be/46DXlzQ_V4A)
First, bins brimming with recyclables are picked up by trucks from a company called Modern Disposal Services (or Modern Corporation).
The City of Buffalo is contracted with Modern for at least three more years. In this current contract, “all recycled material must be recycled unless the Commissioner approves otherwise,” Attridge explained.
Once the recycling gets to Modern’s facility (if you are familiar with Buffalo, at the corner of Tiffts and Hopkins), it goes through the rest of a process called single stream recycling.
An interesting note about the single stream process: it apparently boosts participation by up to 30 percent, according to Modern's website, because it takes the sorting work away from consumers (I really believe this stat).
Garbage trucks then dump all the recycled materials onto the floor of a giant warehouse. It looks like a mountain range of trash because it hasn’t been sorted yet, but that part is coming.
Heavy equipment then dumps the unpleasant-looking soup of recyclables into the feed of a main conveyer that can sort up to about 400 tons of recycling a day!
Computerized controls make sure the recyclables are sorted properly and can make adjustments for how fast or slow the system moves.
It seems the main setting is fast! Dozens of workers wearing medical masks sort the recycled materials at various places along the maze of the conveyer belt.
There are multiple sorting stages.
In the first, trained human sorters remove all non-recyclable items.
Next, the recyclables continue on their journey and are sorted by a massive machine with black, rotating disks that separates cardboard from cans, bottles, and plastics.
The cardboard continues on an upper level and the cans, bottles and plastics on a lower level, where a mix of humans and machines continue the sorting process.
Now things get more high-tech: Machines with magnets lift out any metals and optical sorters scan for any contaminates at the molecular level. The optical-scanning machine removes contaminates using a stream of air.
The human aspect continues, though, at another part of the facility and includes workers sorting the colored bottles—such as those for detergents—from clear plastics.
One of the final parts of the sorting process involves aluminum containers being removed from the can/bottle mix by a cool piece of equipment called an Eddy Current Separator. This machine automatically separates non-ferrous (or iron-containing) metals such as aluminum cans from the stream.
The finished products are bales of sorted recycled materials that are then picked up by forklifts and loaded onto trucks to continue their journeys to becoming a range of new products, such as egg cartons, stadium seats, carpets, backpacks, buckets, and the list goes on.
What Can We Do?
Learning about the complexities of the recycling process just in my community alone made me realize what an investment it is—so why would we totally stop doing it?
Also, it made me comprehend how lucky we are to just be able to toss so many different containers into the same bin with hardly another thought about what happens next.
I have been thinking a lot about how the whole recycling industry in the U.S. is in flux right now following National Sword, especially as articles about how so little actually gets recycled continue to appear in my Facebook news feed (did you know around 91 percent of plastic isn't actually recycled?)
It seems the best we can do as consumers is to pay a bit more attention to what we are trying to recycle.
Attridge said the most important thing is to stick to the “recycling menu” or the list of materials that can be recycled (here’s the list for Buffalo: http://www.moderncorporation.com/what-can-i-recycle/)
“There is something called ‘wishful recycling.’ Avid recyclers hope it will be recycled, but in fact it’s not on the menu and contaminates the entire load,” she explained.
Food and plastic bags are the two most common contaminates in the Buffalo recycling process, Attridge says.
Learning this has made me pay a lot more attention to washing out food containers--probably the most common thing I recycle--before throwing them in my blue bin.
Plastic bags and materials in plastic bags are the biggest offenders in our nation-wide recycling bins as well according to the non-profit Eco-Cycle, one of the largest USA recyclers (https://www.ecocycle.org/dirtydozen).
These plastic bags can, however, be recycled at participating grocery stores (I prefer to remember reusable bags, though).
Among a “dirty dozen” list of other common contaminates in US recycling systems are flattened containers (a surprise to me! Best to skip this step), scrap metal, shredded paper, and frozen food containers.
So, while we certainly can’t control China, I feel this can be an opportunity to become much more engaged with our local recycling processes.
I found learning more made me feel more empowered. I now know that there is a lot of work that goes into making sure my efforts to recycle are followed-through.
I think it just goes to show that no effort is too small, and despite setbacks, recycling is certainly here to stay!