Where Does Our Recycling Go? Part 2

Woman in colorful clothing separating plastic waste, surrounded by plastic trash.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

In Part 1, I covered the evolution of recycling efforts and touched on some of the huge problems impacting the planet as a result. In Part 2, I’d like to take a deeper dive into the damage caused by sending our plastic waste overseas to other countries, especially China.

Since the practice began, China has transformed into the western world’s main dumping ground for its recycling waste. So much so that, inevitably China became so overwhelmed and polluted that they were forced to implement strict policies to stop the flow of recyclables. “The impact of that decision is still being felt,” noted a report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. There is a constant search “for new destinations for the waste produced by world powers, with the United States at the forefront.”1

“There’s no single country that can replace China’s recycling capacity.” -Adam Minter2

Blue Walmart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues, Guiyu, China.
Walmart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues, Guiyu, China. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Where Does Recycling Go Now?

With China effectively closing its doors to new plastic waste, large western countries have been forced to seek alternatives. Some recycling services have just stopped; others are landfilling recyclable materials. The United States and other western countries have resorted to sending their plastic waste to less developed countries that do not have the infrastructure to manage it. The U.S. exports tens of thousands of shipping containers full of plastic recycling to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste, because they do not have the infrastructure to handle the volumes. Imported recycling exacerbates the problem.3

These countries included Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India; but even countries in Latin America and Africa are now taking the West’s recycling waste.4 “The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends [up] in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78% since countries like Canada and South Korea may reexport U.S. plastic waste.”5

New Bans

A few countries, like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, started banning some imports because of pollution. So shipments began making their way to Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal, which had previously handled almost no U.S. plastic. As of 2021, Mexico and Ecuador are among the most significant plastic importers, as they have less legislation regulating recycling imports. The West exports approximately 35 containers per day to that region.6

Colorful plastic packaging and boy at the Structural City Dump, DF-BR.
Photo by Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.5 BR)

Recycling Systems Are Flawed

Most plastic is not recycled, though many do not know that because of how our recycling amounts are calculated. A major flaw in our system is that recycling rates are based on how much we divert from landfills, not on how much waste is actually reprocessed into new products. “Plastic waste has been exported and counted as ‘recycled’ by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency…Without documented traceability of the final fate of the plastic waste, bales of waste plastic collected from municipal and commercial recycling systems were loaded onto trucks and shipped to buyers in foreign countries, many of which had inexpensive labor, no health and safety standards, few environmental regulations and no guarantee that the plastic waste would actually be recycled.”7

Local governments follow the lead of the EPA and calculate their recycling rates based on the volume of landfill diversion. “The practice artificially increased the volume of materials diverted away from U.S. landfills and helped municipalities hit their recycling goals.”8 But all it does is take up space and pollute other parts of the world. Worse, this has caused those countries to become major sources of plastic pollution to the ocean.

“Since exporting plastic waste is a convenient way for the United States (U.S.) and other industrialized countries to count plastic waste as ‘recycled’ and avoid disposal costs and impacts at home, there has been in a significant increase of plastic waste shipments to other countries instead of China. Unfortunately, most of our plastic waste is still shipped to countries that are not equipped to safely and securely manage it.9

Gigantic waste pile with a digger on top, workers (and cows) at bottom sorting out recyclables.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay
Gigantic waste pile with workers (and cows) at bottom sorting out recyclables.
Close-up, similar to previous photo. Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

Polluting Other Countries

Our waste is now polluting other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, and harming the health of humans and wildlife in those areas. In the first half of 2018, western countries sent 754,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia alone.10 In Vietnam, more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold to small household level recycling facilities and processed informally. As an article from The Conversation explained:

“Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20% of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing. Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment. The discharge from a whole village of household processors concentrates the air and water pollution in the local area.”11

Those who run informal facilities aren’t the ones we should blame, though. We need to point the finger at ourselves! We are creating the waste, often with no real way to dispose of it, and it ends up in a developing country. The people who work in those facilities are poisoning themselves just to feed their families. We are the ones who should be ashamed.

Many of the countries receiving our recycling are unable to handle their own plastic waste, to begin with. Waste that comes from the packaging of imported western products. Corporations have influenced most of the developing world that they, too, should buy disposable products. Our bad habits have influenced the entire world even though we aren’t taking responsibility for our own waste.

Harmful to Human Health

Recycling is not only an environmental issue. As attorney and sustainability expert, Jennie Romer, noted, it is also a humanitarian issue. “[The National Sword policy] brought to light that much of the plastic waste sent to China was not effectively recycled and was instead processed by low-wage workers without the health, safety, or environmental protections mandated in the U.S. We were simply outsourcing the problems associated with these materials.”12

In some areas, the pollution from low-value recycling has left long-term problems. In Wen’an, one of the plastic-recycling zones in China, “studies have shown that heavy metal pollution from plastic-waste recycling is high enough to cause risks associated with cancer in children.” In Shandong Province, chemicals from plastic processing have contaminated the groundwater and families must buy bottled drinking water now.13

The fumes from burning plastics are toxic and harmful, even potentially carcinogenic, and people in nearby areas have respiratory problems, unexplained rashes, and other ailments. “Regular exposure can subject workers and nearby residents to hundreds of toxic substances, including hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals, the effects of which can include developmental disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.”14

“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”15

Adolescent boy with bags of plastic recycling on a wagon or trailer.
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

It’s Over

The market for recycling, especially regarding plastic, has not come back around and it likely never will. It costs more to import plastic recycling than companies can recover from selling it. We shouldn’t have been sending it away in the first place – we should have focused on reduction. The sheer volumes of waste and ‘recycling’ are hard to fathom because it is measured in the million tons! In fact, despite the challenges of having to send it to other countries, our plastic waste in the U.S. increased in 2020!

Solutions

We must change our thinking. We have to stop producing so much plastic waste immediately. Companies must redesign packaging to eliminate waste. “We need to look beyond collecting and sorting materials. If we consider how products are designed in the first place, and how we process them to maximize recycling, we can minimize the amount of low-value materials and packaging that we need to dispose of.”16

“Instead of pretending that the trillions of throwaway plastic items produced each year will be recycled or composted, we must stop producing so many of them in the first place.”17

Please spread the message about stopping the production and use of waste. We must demand that corporations stop producing so much plastic. We can’t ignore what is going on in other parts of the world, since we all share this planet. What happens to our plastic, whether it is the U.S. or Southeast Asia, affects us all. Check out my Resources page for leaders in the zero waste and plastic-free movements. Stop buying any disposable items you are able to live without. Though recycling looks dismal, keep trying and learn How to Recycle Better. Please share and subscribe! Thanks for reading.

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastic Wars,” Frontline PBS, March 31, 2020.

Article, “Shrinking market, poor collection services have Hong Kong’s plastic recyclers struggling to stay afloat — and few are succeeding,” by Zoe Low, South China Morning Post, June 22, 2020.

Video, “The Plastic Problem,” PBS NewsHour, November 27, 2019.

Document, “Destination of U.S. and U.K. Plastic Waste Exports, Country Waste Mismanagement Rates and Evidence of Harms to Receiving Countries,” accessed February 19, 2022.

Article, “Material Recycling and the Myth of Landfill Diversion,” by Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 23, August 2018.

Video, “Asia’s ocean pollution crisis,” SCMP Archive, July 6, 2020.

Article, “How A Picturesque Fishing Town Became Smothered In Trash,” by John Vidal, The Huffington Post, April 10, 2019.

Footnotes:

Where Does Our Recycling Go? Part 1

Last updated on March 6, 2022.

Women separating recycling in filthy conditions.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

Most of us drop our recycling into a blue bin, believing we are doing the right thing, and move on. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ point of view is because most of us are so busy that we don’t have time to think about it. But where does our recycling actually go?

If you’ll recall from my article “How Our Recycling Systems Work,” just because recycling is accepted or collected does not automatically mean that it is recycled. If you read my article on why recycling is not the answer, then you also know that our volume of waste, even when recyclable, is out of control. We send most of our recycling away, out of our country, and into the landscapes and lives of people in other countries. Those countries pay workers very low wages to sort recycling and it exposes them to toxic conditions in the process.

“While recycling and the circular economy have been touted as potential solutions, upward of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling has been exported to hundreds of countries around the world.”1

Comic strip, a man indicating the our waste doesn't belong here, but that it is good for other countries.
Plastic Waste Trade Watch Newsletter. Graphic of the Month – September 2021. Image from baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How Recycling Grew

While municipal recycling in the U.S. began in the 1970s as a response to quickly filling landfills, it really took off in the 1990s. Back then, recycling services were inexpensive because recyclers could easily profit from the materials. The U.S. sought to increase the recycling of municipal solid waste to avoid landfilling and incineration. Often referred to as landfill diversion, it has become increasingly important as our volumes of waste exponentially increased over the last two decades. The types of plastics accepted in municipal systems grew from just PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs to include other types of plastics as cities and states emphasized landfill diversion.

In addition, companies and corporations used ‘recycling’ as a way to increase their sales. Recycling makes it ok to use disposables. Companies branded more of their products as environmentally redeemable, which made consumers feel better about their purchases.2 In effect, this normalized buying increased amounts of packaging, plastic, and disposables.

Marketing campaigns for plastic started with organizations like the American Chemistry Council working to protect the interests of wealthy stockholders. They launched campaigns touting the recyclability of all plastics, and “many local governments took the bait, or were pressured to fall in line.”3 Further, since plastics are made from petroleum and chemicals, the petroleum industry strongly backs organizations like the American Chemistry Council. There is a lot of money behind all the plastics in our daily lives.

“The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow.”4

Rear of a Recycling truck emptying a green recycling bin on a street, bird's eye view, two workers shown as well.
Image by zibik from Pixabay

U.S. Exportation of Recycling

As the volumes of recycling increased, the U.S. began reducing domestic recycling. We began exporting our waste to China because of cheaper labor and equipment costs. At the time, China’s economic growth and its demand for our materials were strong.5 “Shipping recyclables from the U.S. to China made economic sense due in large part to the trade deficit,” wrote attorney and sustainability expert, Jennie Romer. The U.S. buys more from China than China does from the U.S. Instead of returning empty shipping containers, the U.S. began shipping recyclables at a discount.

“Due to low cost shipping and labor, the U.S. became reliant on China to accept plastic materials collected by U.S. municipal systems.6

Family working in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any valuable recyclables.
Family working in a landfill in China, sifting through garbage in search of recyclables, 2007. Photo by Sheila on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

China Becomes the World’s Dumping Ground

China handled almost half of the world’s recyclables for about 25 years. They have imported about half of the world’s plastic waste since 1992.7 Recyclables were one of the largest categories of exported materials to China between 2007 and 2016. By 2016, the U.S. transported about 1,500 shipping containers full of recyclables across the ocean to China every day.8

Their plastic scrap import business grew from a grassroots effort among poor villagers seeking to make livelihoods. “According to one estimate, roughly sixty thousand small family farms were converted into family-run plastics-recycling facilities.”9 This recycling economy grew correspondingly as our volumes of waste increased exponentially.

The U.S. was exporting 77.9% of its plastic waste by 2016. Japan exported 87.6%. Seven European countries (Germany, the U.K. Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands) exported 57.5%.10 Up to 70% of Australia’s plastic waste was going to China. Can you imagine how much plastic that is?

“For other countries, China represented a convenient dumping ground for mixed waste. For China, accepting the world’s castoffs became too big a burden.” -Randy Miller, Miller Recycling Corporation11

Family, including a child, working in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any valuable recyclables.
Family working in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any valuable recyclables, 2007. Photo by Sheila on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Operation Green Fence

In addition to the insane volumes, the recycling China received was severely contaminated. Contamination refers to recyclables that are mixed with trash, food waste, and other non-recyclables. The quality of the recyclables started to decrease. Chinese manufacturers incurred large expenses to sort out and dispose of the non-recyclables in Chinese landfills.12 Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.13

The Chinese government passed the Green Fence policy (aka Operation Green Fence) in 2011 and implemented it in 2013. It was a direct response to the volume and contamination problems. It authorized an aggressive inspection effort and the goal was to limit the number of contaminated recyclables and waste that was flowing into China.14 Another goal was reducing illegal foreign smuggling.15

The policy lowered the contamination rate to 1.5%. That means that 98.5% of the contents of recycling bales had to be free of food waste, trash, non-recyclables, and other debris. This was a strict rate and difficult for Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to manage through single-stream recycling systems.

In the policy’s first year, “almost 70 percent of all incoming containers loaded with recyclables were subjected to thorough inspections.” Recyclers and shippers both faced risks if caught shipping substandard materials. Shippers could have their licenses revoked; recyclers could face the costs of paying for the return of containers full of non-recyclable materials. Almost 22,000 large containers were unqualified and rejected.16 Rightfully so, China did not want to receive garbage from other countries. Though the Green Fence policy was temporary, it began to set off changes in the global trade of recycling waste, especially plastic.

Operation Green Fence “highlighted the fragility of global dependence on a single importer.”17

Too Much Plastic…And Trash

Despite the effects of the Green Fence policy, exports to China continued. While the policy reduced the contamination rate to 1.5%, plastic production, and thus plastic waste, steadily increased. “In 2016 alone, about half of all plastic waste intended for recycling (14.1 million [metric tons]) was exported by 123 countries, with China taking most of it (7.35 million [metric tons]) from 43 different countries.”18 The map below illustrates the countries with the largest exports of plastics to China, showing the U.S. as one of the highest.

World map showing the Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade.
“Sources of plastic waste imports into China in 2016 and cumulative plastic waste export tonnage (in million MT[Metric Ton]) in 1988–2016. Countries with no reported exported plastic waste values are white…Quantities for sources of Chinese imports include PE, PS, PVC, PP, and PET.” Source: “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade,” by Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang, and Jenna R. Jambeck, Science Advances, June 20, 2018.

“There’s simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem.” -Greenpeace19

The National Sword Policy

Enacted in 2018, this policy banned “24 kinds of solid wastes, including plastics waste from living sources, vanadium slag, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials.”20 China passed this even stricter policy in order to reduce pollution from low-value recycling, protect its people, and also reduce the smuggling of illegal goods.21 The ban included certain low-value plastics and mandated a 0.5% contamination rate, which is so strict that it almost functions as a ban on most recycling and almost all plastics.

“Before the policy was implemented, China would import huge quantities of waste from other countries, including the U.S. The country had fairly low standards for what it would accept, so recyclable waste would often be mixed with trash and contaminated items such as plastic containers with food debris. China’s processing facilities would then have to manage all that unusable waste.22

The Human Cost

At the plastic scrap businesses, farmers and low-wage workers picked through low-value bales of scrap plastic for the best materials. They processed the best plastics, #1 and #2’s, into recycled plastic nurdles.23 China used to accept most of the #3, 4, 5, and 7 plastics. But most of these plastics were burned for fuel in people’s backyards or dumped in nearby waterways.24 The workers often even lived among the plastic scrap.

Plastics are made of chemicals and petroleum. Plastic in water breaks down into small particles and releases toxins. When humans drink or bathe with that water, they are ingesting or exposing their skin to those chemicals.  Plastic releases those chemicals into the air when heated or burned. Using China as a dumping ground affected the lives and health of thousands of people, who were simply trying to earn enough to support their families.

Two workers on smoking, burning, stinking garbage pile, Huaibei, Anhui, China.
Two workers on a burning and smoking garbage pile in Huaibei, Anhui, China, 2009. Photo by Philip McMaster on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Film, Plastic China

One impetus for the National Sword policy likely came from the 2014 documentary Plastic China.25 The film exposed the environmental and social harms caused by imported plastic waste. It showed the families living and working around toxic plastic materials, even a child washing her face in the wastewater. “Some waste experts believe that the documentary was a motivation for China’s strict National Sword regulations to end China’s unofficial role as the world’s ‘dumping ground’ for waste.”26. Here’s the trailer, which will give an idea of how bad things were:

It is a powerful exposé. As an article from 99% Invisible noted: “Plastic China made the film festival circuit and was even seen in China for a while before the government pulled it from Chinese Internet. Coincidence or causation, National Sword came shortly thereafter. China moved to crack down on informal recycling plants and build newer, better, safer and more efficient recycling systems. Beyond that, the country also shifted focus to recycling internally rather than taking on recyclables from the rest of the world.”27

But China still had to deal with the waste it had already accumulated. Unfortunately, a lot of it wasn’t recycled. “Since the documentary ‘Plastic China’ debuted in China in 2014, more than 60 investigations and articles have shown that millions of tons of exported plastic wastes have been dumped or burned rather than recycled.”28

National Sword Exposed a Broken System

The waste management system in the U.S. was broken before the policy was passed, but it wasn’t apparent. “The National Sword has exposed the fallacy and flaws of the international flow of plastic waste exports as a responsible method of recycling plastic and creating a so-called ‘circular economy’ of plastics.”29

Unfortunately, a circular economy for plastics was never a real thing. Secondary markets for recycled plastic were limited, at best.30 Since virgin plastic often costs less than recycled plastic, there has always been little market demand for it. Worse, plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it is no longer usable. It was never endlessly recyclable.

Negative Value

After National Sword, the recycling market for low-value plastics disappeared almost overnight. With no one to buy the recycling bales, some U.S. recycling facilities began paying for incineration or landfill costs. As Sandra Ann Harris wrote, “The world is unequipped to handle the onslaught of waste that would normally have been shipped to China for recycling. Private and municipal recycling programs that depended on [the] sale of discarded plastics to China have resorted to burying and burning the waste, with serious carbon emissions consequences. Others have gone out of business.”31

China strictly enforced the 0.5% contamination rate through regular inspections and by limiting the number of U.S. companies authorized to transport recycling to China. “Bales that do not meet inspection are either redirected to different end-markets in Southeast Asia or sent back to U.S. ports and placed in landfills, both of which are extremely expensive and consume considerable amounts of fossil fuels.”32

The types of recyclables that Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in the U.S. accepted drastically changed. In some cases, MRFs have to pay to get rid of recycling rather than earn from it. So the demand for plastics is almost non-existent and the value is now negative. These markets are not likely to ever come back unless we make huge, sweeping changes to our entire system. It will become economically challenging to keep recycling facilities operational. Recycling can be part of the solution only if it is economical. Most major companies aren’t going to alter their bottom line just because it’s the right thing to do.

“Spawning the Recycling Crisis”

Some say that the National Sword policy ‘spawned the recycling crisis.’ While it’s true that we suddenly did not have anywhere to send our millions of tons of waste, the problems stemmed from our own creation. We have been producing millions of tons of waste for decades with exponential increases each year. Our corporations had the power to turn off the tap of single-use disposable items and we had the buying power to demand change. So China’s new policy didn’t ‘spawn the recycling crisis,’ it just exposed it. We had been using China as our dumping ground for years, and China became polluted from collecting the western world’s trash.

“While many commentators have blamed East Asian import restrictions for our current struggles, the U.S. is at fault for becoming dependent on exporting its recyclables. The United States failed to curb the rise of plastic, failed to build domestic demand for recycled material, and failed to ensure that product designers considered the end life of their products.” -The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund33

Four Women sorting Plastics for melting. Outskirts of Guangzhou, China. Smashed cathode ray tubes ‘stored’ in back of processing shop, Dali, China.
“Women sorting Plastics for melting. Outskirts of Guangzhou, China. Smashed cathode ray tubes ‘stored’ in back of processing shop, Dali, China,” 2013. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

What Happens to Recyclable Items Now?

The long-term effects of National Sword will continue to be studied, likely for years. Scientists estimated that “111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030.”34 But where does will it all go?

In the U.S., we have had to landfill or incinerate a lot of recycling. Some recycling programs have shut down altogether. Others are burning recyclables in an incinerator or sending all of them to landfills.35 Worse, we have also started sending it to other countries, places that don’t necessarily have waste management infrastructure. Instead of China, are we now putting human health at risk in those other countries?

In Part 2, I’ll explore how our waste and recycling are affecting people in other parts of the world. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Why U.S. Cities Are Ending Single-Stream Recycling,” by Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc., July 8, 2021.

Footnotes:

How Our Recycling Systems Work

Last updated December 12, 2021.

Paper cardboard recycling
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

“We get out of recycling systems what we put into them.” -Beth Porter1

Recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems. Simply put, we’ve produced more plastic at this point than we could ever recycle away.

However, recycling can still be a part of the solution to protect ourselves and the planet, because we have to try. Ultimately we are responsible for the items and packaging from items we consume. Recycling, though far from a perfect solution, reduces the number of trees cut down for paper and the number of natural resources we harvest. Additionally, it curbs the production of new plastics and thus the fossil fuels we extract.

Green and white recycling truck on street, using a the lift to dump a residential recycling bin on a street.
Photo by the Brisbane City Council on Flickr, Creative Commons license(CC BY 2.0)

Single-Stream Recycling

“Ultimately, for recycling to become a way of life for consumers and end-users, recycling had to be easy, and it had to save money.”-Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.2

Single-stream simply means mixed materials in one group – one stream of materials. If your recycling goes in one bin and is picked up curbside, then you have single-stream recycling in your area.

The idea for single-stream came about in the 1990s because of two beliefs. First, that the convenience of putting everything in one bin would encourage more residents to participate in recycling. Using EPA statistics, one recycling company noted that single-stream recycling “overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005.”3

“Curbside recycling grew by 250 percent from 1988 to 1991…People were making the decision to incorporate sorting recyclable goods into their daily routine, reminiscent of war-era conservation efforts.” -Beth Porter4

The second belief is that single-stream recycling systems reduce collection costs. A single truck can collect more volume with mixed materials which reduces transportation costs. However, while collections costs are lower, the processing costs are much higher because of the sorting and separation, tasks which are performed by a combination of humans and expensive sorting machinery.

About 80% of U.S. communities use a single-stream recycling system. “Unfortunately, few could have predicted how low the ceilings really were, or how one move in global policy could send it all crashing down,” referring to China’s 2018 ban on many types of recycling imports.5 Single-stream is clearly riddled with problems and we must find a better way to handle recycling.

“More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed [of] annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate  opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.”6

A bird's eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).
A bird’s eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo by Urban Greendom on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Recycling collected through single-stream is taken to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced”murf”), and sorted by type of material for them to sell. That is the entire purpose of a MRF: the recycling trucks deposit the collected materials, and the MRF sorts, separates, removes waste from, and bales the recycling together. MRFs are businesses seeking profit; they are not municipally owned and operated.

The physical processing at MRFs varies. But a series of expensive, interconnected machines largely sorts the materials. We produce so much waste that there is no other way to separate it. In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of waste, and we recycled approximately 69 million tons.7 That’s not enough.

Generally, at the MRF, trucks dump the mixed materials onto a large floor, called the tipping floor. A front-end loader drops it into a large bin, called a drum feeder, at the start of the processing line. The materials move through a series of conveyor belts with fans, magnets, and wheels to separate the types of items. Humans remove debris and non-recyclable items at various points to prevent tangling or damage to the machinery. Small items, such as caps and utensils, are not likely to make it through these systems because of their size. In addition, they are difficult to bale because they do not have much surface area. For a video of how MRFs work, see Additional Resources below.

At the end of this process, the MRF bales the recyclables to sell to recyclers and manufacturers. The markets change constantly so one of the biggest challenges is recouping money from the materials. Remember, the MRF is looking to profit just like any other business. Recycling does not happen unless it is profitable.

“Acceptance by a MRF is Not Proof of Recycling.”8

Worker looking at bales of recycling at a recycling center.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Increased Contamination

Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables, or they may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like a plastic bag, but which is not recyclable. That plastic bag can get tangled in the machinery at the MRF, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables the MRF needs to sell. If the recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled or incinerated rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

“When consumers put non-recyclable items into their recycling bins, those materials take a long and circuitous (and expensive) route to the landfill.” -Jennie Romer9

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.10 “Because of how the system works, the ‘magic bin’ is actually a disgusting, contaminated soup pot. Shaken, stirred, and dumped into a compactor truck with your neighbors’ random mix, contamination keeps 25% of what we put in our recycling bin from ever being processed at a MRF,” wrote Ryan Deer.11 Reducing contamination is key, but it is difficult within a single-stream recycling system.

“For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true.” -Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.12

Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a blue plastic Finesse shampoo bottle.
Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a plastic shampoo bottle. Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Dual-Stream Recycling

In a dual-stream system, each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The materials are already sorted upon arrival at the MRF. This was the common recycling collection system until single-stream became the dominant system by the mid-1990s. It costs more and requires trucks with separate sections. But the higher costs “of having residents sort could very well be offset by the higher-quality materials they’re recovering and able to sell.” Single-stream loses about 25% of collected materials from contaminants versus less than 12% in dual-stream.1314

Essentially, most recycling centers serve as a dual-stream system because residents separate the recycling into different dumpsters, which the recycling company collects directly. This results in lower contamination and higher recovery rates, meaning less of that recycling is landfilled.

“There is significant evidence that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence the revenue) is lower under single-stream collection than it is under a dual stream system or under systems like container deposits, where materials are kept separate.” -The Container Recycling Institute15

Collected PET plastic bottles crushed.
Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash

System-Wide Problems

Although consumers need to do their part, the problems with recycling in the U.S. do not fall solely on the public. In fact, the systems in place are themselves faulty. Packaging and single-use disposable production are out of control, and the market demand is low. The market needs improvement, as the cost for new materials is sometimes lower than recycled materials. Additionally, only between 50-74% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. There are multiple problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As The Recycling Partnership noted:

“The ultimate fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.16

How We Can Improve Recycling

While recycling systems must be improved and we must find or create demand for recycled materials, we can help improve our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. “A 2016 survey showed that 59 percent of the public thinks that ‘most types of items’ are recyclable in their town, perhaps without knowing the local rules,” wrote Beth Porter.17 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

I’ve put together a Quick Guide on How To Recycle Better to help you prevent contamination.

The bottom line is, if we purchase something, we need to take responsibility for disposing of it. If we stop buying so many products in single-use disposable containers, especially plastics, the companies and manufacturers will stop producing them as demand goes down. At the same time, companies must take real initiative and stop producing waste that is not recyclable.

Graphic of a tree with the leaves in the shape of a recycling symbol. Blue sky background.
Image by 政徳 吉田 from Pixabay

Going Forward

“If all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil, and achieve the  equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.”18

We have the opportunity to make a real difference by better handling our waste. While recycling is not the answer to our waste problems, it is still very important. We need a coordinated effort to reduce waste, to increase demand and markets for recycling, and to be better stewards of the waste we do create. The Recycling Partnership lists these strategies in order to overhaul and improve our recycling systems:

    • “Substantially greater support of community recycling programs with capital funding, technical assistance, and efforts to strengthen and grow local political commitment to recycling services.
    • Development of new and enhanced state and federal recycling policies.
    • Continued and expanded investment in domestic material processing and end markets.
    • Citizen and consumer engagement to create and sustain robust and appropriate recycling behavior.
    • Continued innovation in the collection, sorting and general recyclability of materials, including the building of flexibility and resiliency to add new materials into the system.
    • Broader stakeholder engagement in achieving all elements of true circularity, in which the fate of all materials is not just intended to be recycled, but that they are designed, collected, and actually turned into something new.”19

In the end, we need to focus on reducing waste, including “recyclables,” in order to turn the tide of excessive waste. We must stop wishing for easy and convenient solutions and instead take responsibility for our waste.

Will we do it? What are your ideas? Feel free to leave me a comment below. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “How Recycling Works,” SciShow, June 11, 2015. I love how succinctly this video breaks down how recycling works at the MRF. You’ll learn a lot in just 8 minutes!

Article, “What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?,” by Shelby Bell,

Video, “Single Stream Recycling – Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, October 13, 2016.

Video, “Ever Wonder Where Your Recyclables Go? Get an Inside Look at Where the Magic Happens,” about the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City, featured by Mashable Deals on youtube, May 29, 2018.

Article, “These Items Don’t Belong in Your Recycling,” by Ryan Deer,

Article, “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle: What happens after you toss it into the bin?” by Debra Winter, The Atlantic, December 4, 2015.

Article, “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by Renee Cho, Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020.

Footnotes:

Chattanooga Suspends Curbside Recycling

Last updated September 6, 2021.

City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin
City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin. Photo by me

Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling.

Just like that, with one day’s notice. It was announced in a news release on July 29 and took effect on July 30. I worry that this will not be a temporary suspension and that the “non-essential” city service will end long-term. The City removed glass recycling from curbside pick-up in 2018 and never brought it back.

The mayor seems determined to bring it back. According to their news release, “Residents should keep their recycling containers. Curbside recycling will be reinstated. However, residents may also call 311 to have their containers picked up.”1

Why?

The City of Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling pick-up because of a shortage of truck drivers. There are simply not enough people to run the trucks to collect the recycling with over 30 open CDL driver positions. The City must focus on garbage pick up because that is an essential service required by law. Officials indicated that even garbage services could see disruptions if they are not able to hire a sufficient number of employees.

While this is certainly pandemic related, the other major factor is a lower than average salary for city employees. The mayor’s Chief of Staff said, “The impact to recycling due to our driver shortage illustrates one of Chattanooga’s most acute problems: pay for city employees is far below the market rate, a problem our budget will address when we present it to City Council in August.”2

“This was a difficult decision. An increasing shortage of drivers, low employee retention and hiring challenges are just a few of the issues that made continued curbside recycling untenable.” -City of Chattanooga press release4

Dark green recycling containers at the Access Road center. Each are labeled with signs for plastic, aluminum, steel cans, and glass.
Recycling containers at the Access Road recycling center. Photo by me

How to Recycle Now

Going forward, we will have to take our recycling to the closest recycling center. The City’s news release told residents to go to one of the five city-run recycling centers. However, there are a total of 10 recycling centers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and you can use any of them. I’ve created a map showing the 5 city centers in green, and the 5 county centers in orange:

Generally, all the centers take #1 and #2 plastics, aluminum and steel cans, newspaper, mixed paper, cardboard, glass, and some offer computer equipment and oil collection. I’ve listed links to both the City and County’s websites under Additional Resources.

Note that none of the recycling centers collect #3-#7 plastics. The only reason they were allowed in the curbside bins is that the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect it.5So even though they include that they will pick up all plastics #1-#7, only #1 and #2 are actually sent for recycling. There is little or no market for #3-#7 and those are landfilled.

My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center.
My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center. Photo by me

Impact

For residents who are either unable or unwilling to cart their recyclables to the centers, this will be the end of recycling for them. That recycling will now go to the landfill. These are typically 96-gallon bins. Our household routinely filled the blue recycling bin long before the garbage bin, and we only put our garbage out every few weeks. But I regularly see other households’ garbage bins overflowing week after week, and I can only expect to see an increase with no recycling curbside service.

Update: The City apparently did not account for the increase in recycling that would be dropped off at the recycling centers. With the exception of glass, the bins have been full and so overflowing it was hard to fit my stuff into them. This has been frustrating and extremely disappointing.

The standard issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their equal size.
The standard-issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their almost equal size. Photo by me

Time For Change?

I argue that now is the time for a change. Single-stream recycling systems are wrought with problems regarding sorting, separation, and contamination (meaning residents mix in unrecyclable items). So do we want our imperfect single-stream recycling system back? Does it increase recycling participation even though it lowers the quality of the recovered materials? Or do we need to look at other options such as lowering our use of single-use disposable plastics? Perhaps we could shift our focus to reducing waste in general?

Perhaps now is not a time to demand bringing the old system back, but a time to overhaul the City of Chattanooga’s waste management systems in general. We could pass city-wide bans on single-use plastics such as straws, plastic bags, and take-out containers. We could implement city-wide composting to reduce methane emissions. This would also allow the city to have great soil for landscape projects, urban gardens, and free or low-cost soil for residents. The opportunities are out there, but are we ready here?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving me a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

Update: The City of Chattanooga announced that they would do a one-time emergency curbside pick-up of the blue recycling bins. The announcement’s wording was that the city wanted to “empty” the bins before the plan to hopefully resume full service in October. Residents were informed to put recycling bins out on the same day as regular garbage pick-up. Many were excited that they could again recycle, even if it was just this once. Others were skeptical, myself included. I asked if they would be picking up both bins with one truck, as that would mean all of the materials would be landfilled.

Evidently, many called and emailed the city to ask the same question, which prompted the city to respond and be transparent. The materials from the one-time emergency recycling pick-up will go to the landfill. The city wants to empty the recycling bins, since it was ended so abruptly, to have a fresh start. “Many residents’ bins have..been sitting outside in the weather for several weeks now—rendering the material inside too poor a quality for a second life in the recycling aftermarket,” wrote a city spokesperson.6 The City should have been upfront about this. I know that at least half of the city residents have not followed this story and will put their stuff out, unknowingly sending it to the landfill.

Chattanooga, we can do better than this.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, “Recycling,” City of Chattanooga government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Page, “Where/When to Recycle, Hamilton County,” Tennessee government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Footnotes: