Californians Are Dedicated To Recycling, But It May Not Be Accomplishing Much

RecyclingFrom a young age, Californians are told that it is their civic duty, perhaps even moral duty, to recycle. Starting in elementary school, I remember that posters with green recycling arrows would line the halls, reminding you to do your part. But what does it really mean to recycle? Most people feel like their job is done when they’ve put their cardboard boxes or soda bottles in the blue recycle bin. Fill it up and you’ve helped save the environment!

But it’s not that simple. The basic idea behind recycling is that there is inherent value in some of the things you want to throw away and that it can be converted into a material that can be reused — plastic bottles can be turned into other kinds of plastic goods. But do you know what happens to recyclables after you throw them into your blue bin?

For the last few decades, we’ve been selling our recyclable materials to China. But as the country has developed, they don’t want these materials anymore. Sorting through our waste is not a glamorous job, and a growing Chinese middle class means it’s harder to find people willing to manually sort through trash.

The other issue is that much of the material we send them is contaminated. In January, China put a ban on materials that were greater than half a percent contaminated. It’s simply too costly for them to clean and convert anything with a higher rate of contamination into new material.

Right now, the average contamination rate of our recyclable materials is 25 percent. “It’s amazing what people put in recycling bins,” Mark Oldfield public affairs director at CalRecycle, said in the Los Angeles Times. “Dirty diapers. Broken crockery. Old garden hoses. Some of the worst offenders are old batteries.”

Of course many Californians probably think that they know better than to put dirty diapers in the recycling bin. But what about pizza boxes, plastic bags, or dirty jars and cans? All of those things are considered contaminated materials and cannot be recycled. Just because you want something to be recyclable doesn’t mean it is.

Brent Bell, Vice President of Recycling Operations for Waste Management, a waste and environmental service provider, recently wrote on the company’s website, “contamination significantly increases the cost to process recyclables.” Trying to get from 25 percent to a virtually zero percent contamination rate would cost a significant amount of money, investing hours of manpower to manually sort through each individual piece of trash. The cost of getting down to that half a percent contamination rate would likely be higher than the price China is willing to pay for it.

So if China isn’t going to take our recyclable materials, what are we going to do with them?

One option is just to switch to the next developing country that would be willing to buy the material, such as Indonesia. But in another 30 years, we’re likely to find ourselves in the same position that we’re in today. Once a country develops, they often decide they don’t want to process recyclables anymore. They simply don’t want to see “Third World” trashing sorting in their country anymore.

Are we really accomplishing any of the goals we hoped to achieve through recycling? Most people feel like recycling is good for the environment, and think that the process of diverting trash away from landfills is inherently better than the alternative. But when you actually track where your plastic bottles and cardboard boxes go, it’s not making much of a difference at all.

Contaminated materials still need to be sifted through and separated. If they’re too impure to reuse, it gets thrown out. So, many items get dumped in a landfill in the U.S. or shipped to another country to get thrown into their landfill.

If the material is clean enough to be recycled, what’s the environmental cost of the factories processing it? What are the working conditions like for the people in these factories? What resources need to be used to get old recyclable materials to factories in China or Indonesia, and what’s the environmental impact of shipping new plastic products back to the U.S.?

We need to be thinking about a long-term solution for what can be done about with this waste. One option is a waste to energy (WTE) program. WTE, which is the process of burning trash in order to create energy, is relatively clean and used in many places throughout the world, such as Sweden. But this option hasn’t gained much traction in the United States. One of the big problems is that not a lot of people want to live next to a WTE incinerator. This is partly because many people still believe that incinerating trash is bad for the environment, which is not a totally unfounded idea. Burning trash can be bad for the environment and release pollutants into the air, but WTE incinerators are far more advanced than a simple open fire in someone’s backyard.

Oddly enough, some of the big opponents to WTE are environmentalists who prefer recycling, composting, or simply just generate less waste. For them, incinerating trash is just not good enough. These two factors make WTE incinerators politically infeasible.

But there are some practical everyday solutions. We need to quit practicing wishful recycling and stop throwing things like pizza boxes and other contaminated materials into the recycling bin. In fact, recycling shouldn’t even be looked at as the best choice for dealing with waste. As the common phrase goes: reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order. Glass jars can be reused as drinking glasses. You can turn old clothes and fabrics into cleaning rags. We can all be a little more mindful when it comes to the waste we generate and stop putting blind faith into the inefficient model of shipping waste overseas, only for it to be dumped in another landfill, this time, one thousands of miles away.

Adriana Vazquez is a Bay Area resident and Young Voices Advocate. She has been published in Washington Examiner, San Francisco Examiner, and the East Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter at @VazquezAdriana.