Do you recycle? Maybe you separate your metal, paper, and plastics into separate bins or toss them into one large can. You may even carefully rinse your cans to avoid the smell. Bet you feel good about yourself. Bet you feel like are doing your part by recycling.
Do you watch TV shows or YouTube videos about people who build homes, bridges, or entire towns from recycled materials? You may think, Good for America! Good for me. We are saving the planet one plastic bottle at a time. I am sorry to be the one to tell you that it’s all a lie.
In our old neighborhood, we had three distinct pickups on Tuesday mornings. The trash truck came by first and gathered the bags of garbage. A few minutes later, another truck, which looked eerily similar to the first truck, drove through the streets dumping the blue recycling bins into its gaping back end. Finally, a “different” truck collected our yard waste, which we placed on the curb in large, recycled bags.
What a dance it was! I enjoyed the show from the window of my home office, stopping my work to watch the men fling the bins and bags across the street and upend them into the trucks. You may imagine, as I did, that those items we had carefully separated from the trash would ride to a special facility where state-of-the art machinery would sort, clean and, well, recycle our cans and bottles into something useful. But this is not the case.
Out of sight, out of mind
The county where I live has proposed a 2020 budget that cuts solid waste management spending by more than $500,000 and spends only 4% of its funds on recycling. Another 7% goes to maintaining landfills that are now closed because they can no longer handle more waste. So where do most of our recyclables go?
China. At least it did for the last 30 years or so. China paid the U.S. for “raw materials” that it needed for its struggling economy. The U.S. obliged, sending them tons of our leftovers, the recyclables we couldn’t use, and they paid us for it so we could fund curbside pickup, sorting, and other elements of the program.
Around 2013, China warned the U.S. that they were needing less and less of our trash. They were getting along fine, making their own waste, and the U.S. would have to find another way to dispose of their plastics. Finally, in 2018, China banned all garbage imports as a way to fight their massive pollution problem. The U.S. now had a population trained to recycle but no way to deal with the garbage.
Where does your recycling go?
My apartment complex does not recycle. So all our trash goes into one bag, which we carry to the community dumpster. Twice a week, a trash truck comes and throws the massive dumpsters over its shoulder, releasing our garbage into its hopper. Then it drives away, and we all feel a little lighter, a little cleaner. But where does it go?
Apparently, much of our plastics now end up in countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, which are already overwhelmed with their own trash. From there, unusable or contaminated trash end up in the oceans, where, according to some scientists, plastic is more common than plankton.
Perhaps it is time to restructure our system of recycling, re-evaluate our waste management budgets, and re-educate consumers about where their waste really goes. Meanwhile, this information will make a difference in the choices I make as a consumer. The packaging for everything I put in my grocery cart will one day end up in the trash.