The recycling industry has changed significantly since China banned the import of U.S. plastics, mixed paper, and other materials in 2017. So what happens as the demand for recyclables declines and policy continues to fluctuate? It’s time to examine the trends in the recycling industry in response to recent changes.
If you think the change isn’t significant, take the San Diego recycling program as an example. In 2016, it brought in $4 million in revenue. Fast forward a year, and it is expected to cost over $1 million dollars! This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Sure, the recycling crisis is part and parcel of the recent trade disputes between the U.S. and China, but there is more to the story. According to Environmental Leader, “Even before the Chinese government’s announcement in August, bales of paper and plastic started piling up in the United States due to China’s environmental restrictions on imports.”
Essentially, recycled materials coming out of the United States are simply too dirty.
The New York Times recently published an opinion piece discussing how we can navigate the recycling crisis. David Bornstein interviewed Recycle Across America founder, Mitch Hedlund, to see what he believes is next.
According to Hedlund, “The crisis stems from people throwing garbage in recycling bins, which contaminates the recyclables,” a problem that China has been warning the U.S. for over 10 years.
The root cause is related to how recycling has been presented to the public. According to Hedlund, instructions on bins are confusing making people skeptical and, eventually, apathetic. Without clear, consistent labeling, millions of tons of garbage are thrown into recycling bins.
What can be done? Having a standardized system for labeling recycling bins can almost completely eliminate the problem, according to Hedlund. But there are competing interests that get in the way.
The primary barrier is that many of the most dominant recycling companies are owned by landfills. When recycling doesn’t work out, landfills reap the benefits of receiving the contaminated recyclables.
Of course, this advice from Hedlund really focuses on the larger problem. What can individuals do? Hedlund’s message is a clear one that is not new: “Reduce, reuse and Keep recycling!” Just be sure you know your local guidelines.
There has also been an increased focus on decreasing contamination as it was a primary factor in creating the current crisis. But how has the industry adapted to an ever-changing landscape?
There are numerous companies capitalizing on the recycling crisis. With many major brands focusing on 100 percent recycling and reusing in the next several decades, companies like Ecologic are beginning to find a niche.
Ecologic is “a sustainable packaging company that creates bottles for the personal care, cleaning and food industries.” President and founder, Julie Corbett acknowledged it was challenging to create the product, but it has a “much lighter environmental impact” when compared to others.
We can take heart that not everyone has had to drastically adapt. Take Stanford University, an institution that for several decades has been leading the sustainability movement. “In 2017, only 8,190 tons of waste went to landfills (a 62 percent diversion rate), down from 14,000 tons in 1998.” Stanford is striving for zero waste by 2030.
While the recycling crisis is certainly less than ideal, it has created a renaissance when it comes to awareness. We can all acknowledge that, while many of us in the sustainability world have been doing our part, this is a wakeup call.
It is clear that recycling is in a state of flux, but with committed people like Hedlund and innovative companies like Ecologic, we can continue to be optimistic about fighting for sustainability.