Recycling is not the answer

"Trash" by Kuba BożanowskiLast week Holly mentioned that plastic recycling is in trouble in America too.

I found out from an article in the Atlantic that cities across the country have ended their recycling programs. Why? Because China has stopped accepting our soiled trash due to health risks, environmental damage, and increased labor costs. Without tens of thousands of Chinese people sorting our plastic for slave wages, we don’t know what to do with it.

China handled half of the world’s recycled waste for the last 25 years. But the burden took a toll. Leakage contaminated the ground and water; the incineration of byproducts poisoned the air. (Six years ago I wrote of Giuyu, a city in China that became one of the most polluted in the world due to American e-waste.) Now the rise of living standards in China means that paying very poor people to wade through our trash isn’t cost-efficient anymore. So they’re refusing to take any waste that isn’t already 99.9% pure. American recycling doesn’t qualify.

What will we do?

Some of the excess American waste is being sent to poor countries like India. But they quickly realized they didn’t have capacity to take on America’s garbage. In fact, 187 nations just signed an agreement to prevent countries like the USA from dumping their waste on the poor.

Almost all the world’s countries have agreed on a deal aimed at restricting shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries, the United Nations announced on Friday.

Exporting countries – including the US – now will have to obtain consent from countries receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste. Currently, the US and other countries can send lower-quality plastic waste to private entities in developing countries without getting approval from their governments.

Since China stopped accepting recycling from the US, activists say they have observed plastic waste piling up in developing countries. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia), a backer of the deal, says it found villages in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia that had “turned into dumpsites over the course of a year”.

“We were finding that there was waste from the US that was just piled up in villages throughout these countries that had once been primarily agricultural communities,” said Claire Arkin, a spokeswoman for Gaia.

American negotiators fought against the change, and aren’t signing the agreement. But the agreement is still binding in the nations they’re trying to send waste to. So for once we’re going to have to deal with our own garbage.

If we can’t efficiently recycle our own plastic, and we can’t dump it on poor countries, what will we do? Many city recycling programs have started sending their plastics to landfills or incinerators. You might feel good throwing your plastics in the recycling bin, but chances are they’re ending up in the same place as the rest of the trash. Even before China’s move, 80% of plastic waste went to landfills or litter, and most of the rest was incinerated. Less than 10% of plastic was getting recycled. That number will now go down even further.

We must understand that this issue is unprecedented in human history. We’ve never produced so much non-biodegradable waste. All those toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles and disposable diapers…they need to go somewhere. But where?

Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, states, “We’ve had an ostrich-in-the-sand approach to the entire system. We’re producing a lot of waste ourselves, and we should take care of it ourselves.”

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day.

Five pounds of waste per person each day. Nearly a ton of waste from every person, every year. Incredible, but believable. I could see the causes last year when I spent time in the USA.

Online shopping involves multiple layers of packaging around every item, all of which is trashed. I saw people who receive online packages every week, or even multiple times a week. Amazon alone will ship out 5 billion packages this year.

L.O.L. Surprise Dolls” are many layers of packaging with a nearly worthless toy at the center. Creating the trash IS the experience, after you throw away all that packaging, you’re likely to throw away the doll in short order too, and then a few days later have the kid beg to unwrap another one. But how different is that from most new plastic toys? Whenever I went into a house with a kid, the volume of plastic playstuff was mind-blowing.

I thought coffee fads were out of control a decade ago, but it’s only getting worse. Some people buy a Starbucks coffee every day, cups and lids to be trashed. But in many cases homemade coffee is little better. The rage now is “K-Cups”, single-use disposable coffee pods that are not only expensive ($40 per pound of coffee grounds) but create an incredible amount of waste. Last year alone 10,000,000,000 portion packs were sold. A single company sold ten billion throwaway coffee pods.

We’re talking about billions now. The numbers would be incomprehensible enough in the millions, and we have to talk about billions.

What is the cost of all this consumption? More goods being produced than ever before means natural resources are sucked out of poor nations, ecosystems destroyed in the process. Enormous energy is used in manufacturing and transporting, with all its accompanying problems. Things trashed in landfills either sit there forever or decompose into methane, a greenhouse gas. Trash burned in incinerators releases carbon dioxide (another greenhouse gas), and various toxins like mercury and lead. Even for the minority of products that get recycled, the very process of recycling burns about as much energy as making the product the first time around did.

The only reasonable answer is to consume less. Dialing down our consumption addresses every one of the above problems at once, without simply creating new ones like most of our other “solutions” do. Has the overconsumption of plastic brought us more joy? Created more good in the world? Does more plastic really make your home, your family, your community a better place? If not, then we need to stop letting all these corporations convince us to buy it at the ever-accelerating rates necessary to maintain their profit margins.

Perhaps the collapse of American recycling programs is a blessing in disguise. Because recycling was not the answer anyway.

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