FOR THE WEEK OF JUNE 25, 2018
Americans need to pay closer attention to what we toss in recycling bins
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Recycling trash from our homes, schools and workplaces is in the news this summer. The main reason involves new restrictions on shipping U.S. garbage to China, the world's largest recycler. At the same time, there's a push for Americans to pay closer attention to what can go in recycling bins and what shouldn't. The two developments are related because collections of recyclable materials are harder to sell if they’re contaminated with excluded stuff – which means more loads go to landfills instead of reuse.
China announced last year that it no longer wants to be the "world's garbage dump," recycling about half of the globe's plastics and paper products. An import ban that took effect in January covers 24 kinds of solid waste, including unsorted paper and the type of plastic used in beverage bottles. This month it stopped accepting other scrap if shipments are more than 0.5 percent "impure." That means if they contain plastic bags, lined coffee cups, toys, greasy pizza boxes, oily takeout containers or soiled diapers, for instance. "There is a significant disruption occurring to U.S. recycling programs," says David Biderman, head of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a research and advocacy group in Silver Spring, Md.
Some communities send recyclables to be processed domestically, or are shipping more to India, Vietnam and Indonesia. But others can't find a substitute for the Chinese market, which had been relied on heavily by Western states using Pacific Ocean ports. That means thousands of tons of material left at curbs for recycling in dozens of American cities and towns have gone to landfills in recent months. "All of a sudden, material being collected on the street doesn't have a place to go," says Pete Keller, an executive at Republic Services in Phoenix, one of the largest U.S. waste managers.
In response, trash collectors in Clackamas County, Ore., now put "oops" tags on recycling bins with the wrong materials. A hauler in Medford, Ore., has slashed its list of what’s recyclable to just four items after stockpiling and dumping thousands of tons of unwanted paper, plastic and glass. And Portland raised garbage collection rates, largely to cover the added costs of recycling. "Wanting to recycle is a good thing, but putting things that don't belong there only adds to the program costs," says Bruce Walker, Portland's recycling manager. Americans recycle roughly 66 million tons of material each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and about one-third is exported.
China says: "To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted." – July 2017 statement to the World Trade Organization
Journalist says: "You might be part of the reason America has such a lousy reputation for recycling." – Rebecca Martinez, North Carolina Public Radio
Environmental activist says: "Recycling should be mandatory, and the producers and distributors should be on the hook for the cost." -- Natural Resources Defense Council supporter
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