What happens to our recyclables?

Written by:
Seat, recycled denim

Are recyclables dumped in landfills and not recycled? Earlier this year, The Hot Mess Press published an article that Caroline Rock wrote on recycling being a lie. However, there are always two sides to a story. I came across information that explains the other side. Ultimately, you can make up your own mind.

Bulldozer, landfill
Is this where our recyclables end up?

Selling recyclables to China

I’ll start at the tail end, to confirm some of what Caroline reported. According to the U. S – China Institute, scrap materials to the value of $3.1 billion went from the U.S. to China in 2004. However, a significant part of that went to Chinese landfills.

At the beginning of this century, China began buying as many old printer cartridges as we could supply. That led to United states stores encouraging consumers to bring in their old cartridges. Subsequently, it became apparent that the only valuable part of used cartridges was the bits of ink that remained. The Chinese gathered those droplets of ink and repacked it for resale. What happened to the now completely empty cartridges? They went to landfills, where burning them tainted drinking water with dangerous levels of acid and lead.

Printer cartridges
China imported empty printer cartridges from the U.S.

Optimistic fortune seekers

At home in the U.S., some optimists planned schemes to jump on the recycling wagon and get rich. One case involved a New Hampshire firm that charged school districts to take away their fluorescent light bulbs. They claimed to have a plant where the light bulbs and the toxic mercury they contained could be safely recycled. However, authorities later learned that the firm accepted the payment for carting away the bulbs. Instead of recycling it, they stacked it in abandoned buildings at different locations across the state.

Fluorescent bulbs, used
Used fluorescent bulb were stacked in empty buidings

The National Post reported another similar scam. This one involved an Illinois firm that accepted payment for hauling toxic waste for recycling. Authorities ultimately found that the firm marked many loads of poisonous waste as safe to handle. Those loads went to landfills, and the balance was carted to abandoned Chicago buildings and stored illegally.

Toxic waste, dumped
Toxic waste, marked as safe to handle, and dumped


Curbside collections of recyclables

In the 1970s, public relations campaigns were so successful that University City, Mo. began curbside programs for recycling old newspapers. By 2006, there were more than 8,600 such recycling programs  across the country.

Bins, sorting recyclables
Curbside bins for sorted recyclables

At first, American households had to sort their garbage into different bins for paper, glass and plastics. However, before long, recyclers claimed to have new technology that could sort the garbage at the plant. This gave many people the idea that no recycling takes place, and everything goes straight to landfill. Unfortunately, the recycling companies who collected the garbage did not explain how the new technology works.

equipment, recycler
Modern recycling sorter

The new technology allows garbage collection as a single stream. The modern sorting equipment uses infrared lasers to separate different paper types and plastics. Furthermore, electric currents and magnets separate different metals from each other. Each type of material emits unique light wavelengths.

Can we trust that information?

But how do you know whether your garbage goes to a recycling plant or ends up in the landfill?

The only way you will know is to follow your garbage all the way. From collection to the manufacturers who buy recycled products. If you do that, you can see how much of your trash is actually recycled. Recyclers say they cannot recycle everything. For example, greasy, cheese-covered pizza boxes will go to the landfill, and so will tiny bits of broken glass. Plastics containing too many impurities like PVC will also go to landfills.

Ornaments, recycled
Range of ornaments made from recycled garbage

Many companies  seek recyclables like cans, boxes and bottles for consumers who love the idea of buying recycled products. Recyclers profit on those sales, but they must pay to dump the trash in landfills.

My conclusion

So, to me, that says the recycling companies would recycle as much as possible because paying to dump garbage masses at the landfill instead will definitely not boost the bottom line.

However, we cannot lose sight of those cases of recyclables stored illegally in abandoned buildings. What do you think?


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