Monday was Earth Day and it's a good time to think about the recycling crisis facing the US. Last year China that took in most of the developed world's recyclable trash decided to up it's quality standards. Do recyclables going into the recycle bin have quality standards ?- the surprised reader might wonder. Yes they do as this article in Mercury News explains. It is timely for all to understand what you should NOT be putting in the recycle bin.
In the US there has been a move from multi-stream recycling to single-stream recycling. Multi-stream refers to different recycling containers for paper ,plastic, metal, glass with the consumer doing the sorting upstream. Multi-stream recycling had a consumer adoption problem in that people were just not using them enough. To improve recycling adoption by consumers there was a massive move to go to single stream recycling where you had all types of recycling in one container. The idea was that recycling facilities in the US would manually (yes manually) sort out paper, plastic, metal and glass and put them into bales before shipping to China. Since there was a lot of mixing up of different categories of plastic only 25% of a plastic bale could be recycled and 75% went to a landfill in China. With a booming economy and 1.38 Billion people being rapidly westernized in consumption habits - China had its own waste to dispose off. Since last year China has refused to pick up contaminated bales beyond a 0.5% mix up or if it has liquid. As the Mercury News article explains, Chinese inspectors are inspecting consignments in the US before shipping because if a consignment is rejected in China there is a huge cost for the US exporter.
The US seems to have a still functioning (not totally globally outsourced) metal and heavy glass recycling industry and the big problem seems to be paper and plastic that come not just from the grocery store but also from all those packages from Amazon.
To understand how recycling works in a factory sense one needs to go upstream in the supply chain for each packaging material and better understand how each broad category of paper and plastic work in packaging. Here is a recycling diagram for cardboard boxes and it is similar for plastic bottles and those cartons plastic bags that may be a combination of plastics/metal/paper. Plastics and aluminum foil tend to be in contact with the product and are particularly useful in preserving food freshness. The boom in online sales has added a whole lot of outer packaging that's needed in two separate rounds - the first is shipping to the retailer (or online retailer) and then a different box to mail to the online buyer. These paperboard cartons can be made with recycled paper but tend to be less stronger than those made with virgin wood pulp from trees. Buying the correct cardboard cartons that survive transportation but don't cost too much is something that purchasing and supply managers give a lot of attention. Normally retail stores are well trained to properly dispose off outer cartons that tend to be for both transport and retail display.
The consumer however, does not realize that there is no magic in the sorting of all the stuff we put into that recycling bin. Towns collect recyclables and have a detailed list of what to put into the recycle bin. Every member of a household needs to read their recycle list from their town and follow it exactly. And that is not easy to do or expect.
However, US towns are remarkable in their excellent self Government through elected officials. Communicating the recyclable list through schools, local newspapers, facebook groups and online and offline ads can get all residents to understand what to put into the recycle bin.
If there is clarity on what you should be putting into your recycle bin then there are two big benefits:
- The perceived low value paper-plastic recycling industry will revive in the US and create many jobs
- The environment will benefit
Here is a list of what recycling our town allows- ( please check your own town website- Google "what I can't recycle -name of your town") because they might have a different list depending on their recycling contractor.