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Sorting through the mess that is recycling

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/12/19 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Stuff

The fallout from China rejecting American recycling is complete. It has completely upended the market, says Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District Executive Director Diane Bickett. Worse, there may be no easy solution in sight.

<br />Inside a waste management facility in Cleveland.<br />

To understand what happened to recycling is to take a hard look at the exploitation and environmental consequences at the heart of a global concern. It is to examine our role in how impoverished children living on the shores of Asia and African nations are stuck with U.S. recycling that is piling up on their shores—the same seas where our seafood is caught and sold to American supermarkets and restaurants.

Are we ready to face that cities have been secretly landfilling recycling, or cancelling their curbside recycling because their private waste hauler is passing along a fee? Recycling has lost waste hauling companies money, Bickett says, but they took the loss so long as China was there to absorb most of the cost of buying back the consumer packaging it was selling. The money to process materials that once fetched cities fees and now is hurting their bottom line is a super sized symptom of the U.S. / China relationship.

China’s decision to cut off the passage of material has put recycling into “a tailspin,” Bickett says (see sidebar at the end of this post for a refresher on the new rules). In fact, consumers have been blamed for recycling’s problems for a lot longer. While true that only 28% of Americans properly recycle—the rest don't do it at all or contaminate it by throwing in items that are no longer accepted—the bigger issue is manufacturers are producing far too much packaging and have fought effective policy like bottle return funds. Will a wave of market driven discontent—like the anti-plastic straw campaign which became a symbol of the larger system of consumption—spur deep change.

Consider the conundrum of the berry. Clamshelled in plastic so it can be whisked on a plane thousands of miles, sit on a grocery store shelf for a week and spend a few minutes on a kitchen counter—a package that spends the rest of eternity in a landfill. When China stopped accepting the plastic containers used by the fruit industry, it exposed all that was unsustainable about the food system. How berries can be picked year round and shipped in plastic is both miraculous and frightening when the carbon footprint of produce and lifecycle of the package is consider. Lighter than the blue paper berry containers that it replaced, the fruit industry will tell you, the carbon footprint of shipping berries to Ohio from South America was reduced. No doubt they have the figures to back it up, but who is ever asked to consider if Ohioans should be eating South American berries in winter when the food system is weighed against the layer of plastic that has defined our lifetime, known as the Anthropocene because it has left an indelible mark on the natural history of the planet.

When a berry container is thrown into a recycling bin — even though we’ve been warned now that it is no longer being recycled and in fact could get the whole blue bag tossed into the landfill — that is called “wish cycling.” Wish cycling is the art of avoiding the truth. Recycling is like the smoke that comes out of the tailpipe of a car. We don’t blame the tailpipe when it is our city design that embeds driving into every decision by allowing only single-use zoning and streets that are not multi modal.

Insiders like Bickett have little faith that the U.S. government will take control of the issue — like China did or like Europe does when it requires manufacturers to buy recycled materials. What is more likely, in Bickett’s estimation, is consumer choice will prod corporate responsibility.

“The general public has become aware of plastic pollution, and companies are starting to feel the backlash,” she says. “Coke and Pepsi have said they will use more post-consumer recycling. Hotels are getting rid of little plastic shampoo bottles. Cruise liners are requiring customers to bring their own reusable straws.”

Instead of blaming consumers for the failure of an industry that has no stake in recycling, perhaps it’s time for a more constructive way to frame this problem. This has more to do with giant economic interests, from Madison Avenue to the beverage industry to big ag telling us we need all of this plastic because it’s convenient. We can no longer rely on recycling, if we ever could. Will enough people finally get fed up and turn their attention to where it matters: that those who dreamed up the unsustainable food system and those who profit by making all this stuff we don’t want or need will help untwist this mess?

“There’s not much we can do except to reduce single use,” Bickett concludes. “Individuals can make small changes, take our reusable bags to the store, but systems change has to come from a policy change.”


The new recycling rules—after China reduced what it will take—for residents of Cuyahoga County have been streamlined to five, simple types, according to county Solid Waste District Director Diane Bickett, who adds, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

What CAN be recycled in Cuyahoga County:

  1. Metal cans
  2. Cartons—juice and milk (gable top)—"though the demand for that has fallen”
  3. Paper—Office paper, magazines and newspapers (no paper towels, no tissue, no food plates). And cardboard (take all of the packing material out and flatten the box).
  4. Glass bottles and jars
  5. Plastic bottles and jugs (if the neck is smaller than the body, then it can be recycled. Everything else is going to a landfill and needs to go into a regular trash bag)

The Final Word

“The economics have changed,” Bickett says about solving the bigger issue of zeroing out waste. “Cities grew accustomed to getting a rebate and not paying a ‘tip fee’ that the recycling industry charges per load. That will change, and probably cause more than a few cities to discontinue their program.”

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