Talking Trash: Unfortunate Truths About Recycling

Americans have come to embrace recycling their trash with an almost religious fervor, but in some sense they are praying to a false god. In the quarter-century over which its acolytes have swelled, recycling has almost come full circle, from near total indifference all the way around to near total impossibility. In between, and especially over the past couple of years, just when many localities had seen the light, their recycling efforts started bogging down. It wasn’t just that China banned imports of raw recyclables from the US in early 2018, although that was a wallop that the industry hasn’t recovered from. A 2018 report from the Washington State Ecology Department notes:

China is the largest consumer of North American recyclables. One-third of all scrap material collected in the U.S. is shipped overseas, with the large majority going to China. In 2016, the U.S. exported $5.6 billion in scrap commodities to China. This makes recyclable materials the sixth largest U.S. export to China.[1]

The prime reason China gave for rejecting American trash was that its valuable plastics were laced with non-recyclable contaminants. This was true, and I’ll talk about why, but Trump’s tariffs and geopolitical rivalry probably made it happen when it did. Regardless, even had China not shut that door, we would still be in a tizzy over how to make our vast waste stream go away. Americans simply buy and toss too much stuff and their expectations that it will all be magically…

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