The Recycled Debate About Recycling

With China's recent restrictions on buying American garbage, the U.S. faces a big problem.

Robin Smith · Mar. 25, 2019

Once upon a time, Americans drank their water from the faucet or tap. If you liked it cold, you may have kept a jug in the refrigerator filled and chilled when thirsty. If you needed a drink of water on the fly, you leaned over the water fountains that were publicly available or used the plastic dispenser of the day … the hose.

Today, water is sold just as a soft drink, iced tea, or another beverage of convenience — in cans, plastic bottles, or sometimes in glass bottles. We Americans seem to need both hands occupied with a beverage and our smartphones to be fashionably complete in the modern-day world of hustle and bustle.

But at what price?

Last week, both The New York Times and Breitbart touched on the same topic and came surprisingly close to a similar conclusion — Americans generate a ton of waste that, despite being recycled, now is adding more and more to our landfills due to the increasing costs of recycling and the excess of recycled items that end up in the trash heap.

The most current data available to quantify our waste is from 2015. That year, Americans generated about 262.4 tons of garbage that was placed in a landfill. Compounding a growing problem of our reliance of packaging for convenience is the fact that our recyclables, once bought by China in vast quantities, have been restricted since 2017 due to the contamination of products with waste. China’s ban on used plastics and paper have resulted in a glut of recycled materials not just in America but abroad, with municipalities seeing the cost of recycling rising due to the falling value of the collected materials. Hence, the quandary: What do we do with the increasing volume of waste?

To appreciate the scale, Fort Worth, Texas gained $1 million through the sale of its recycled items in 2017 but is on track to lose $1.6 million this year due to the reversal of fortune in dealing with a mountain of material that is too expensive to be exported yet has to be addressed.

This isn’t a glamorous issue. Most want to talk about economic policy, health-care-payer dynamics, world trade and the value of the dollar, or the healthy conflict between global markets that need America to be competitive. Heck, it’s pretty fun to talk about the metaphorical head explosions of the crowd that refused to accept the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016 now having to admit that President Donald Trump endured two years of investigation only to be found innocent of collusion with Russia!

Nevertheless, our garbage is never the policy point of soaring rhetoric, but let’s face it — if America doesn’t begin to address some of our consuming habits and our infrastructure to handle it, we’ll see a public health and safety problem that no one will enjoy having to deconstruct after we’ve helped build it.

Some cities are incinerating their waste. That means smoke, particulate matter, and pollution in the air, right? No. Capturing the heat from the closed combustion and harnessing that energy onto a grid, cities in Florida and Pennsylvania featured in the Times piece are finding a less expensive way to deal with items that would otherwise consume space in landfills or prove increasingly more expensive to send across the Pacific for recycling.

The next question will be, should there be a ban of the use of disposable items? It’s always easier to issue edicts but in the case of food packaging, there’s a complicating factor of sanitation that’s required with the sale of consumable goods like food, beverages, and medicines. It’s also a fact that those who have the most restrictive access to fresh foods and refrigeration are the poorest who rely heavily on items packaged for single use.

Back to the largest contributor resulting in China’s ban: single-stream recycling. The ease of placing a container of waste on the curbside beside a bin of recyclable items mixed for later separation is popular, but unwelcomed by those who want to purchase the used items with a minimal amount of work to reuse the items. About two-thirds of all municipal recycling programs are single-stream recycling processes that don’t require separation at the point of return and pick up. Dialing it back a bit, when recycling first launched, even the plastics were separated by the number that corresponds to the type of plastic, ranging from numbers one through seven. Simply put, the Chinese began rejecting our recycling because it included too much of our other waste they didn’t want to buy.

So, if the use of disposable products shouldn’t be banned and likely since folks want to see less land used for landfill dumping, we need to change our behavior as consumers. America’s desire to frequent the drive-through and enjoy the conveniences of single-use items has added costs to our retail purchases. We’re now seeing those desires and conveniences are adding costs to our lives in the long run.

As we approach solutions, let’s reflect on a few of President Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on conservation that teach us being a good steward transcends a partisan divide:

“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

“Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”

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