The United States has sent much of its plastic and paper waste to China for decades to be recycled. In the 1990s, China started to fill a unique need in the recycling market. They accepted cheap, difficult-to-recycle items, and used them to meet their manufacturing industry’s demand for raw materials. However, in 2018, China’s “National Sword” policy cracked down on the acceptance of low-value, contaminated recyclables. This sent the international recycling industry into a frenzy in 2018 as the world’s previous number one importer of recyclables accepted “less than 1 percent of its 2016 total,” according to Christopher Joyce of National Public Radio. The extremity of the recycling crisis offers a rare chance to reshape how America recycles.
Plastic is extremely useful because it’s cheap, flexible, and lightweight. Its only sin is the fact that it takes hundreds of years to decompose, and when it enters waterways, it can break down into extremely small pieces of harmful microplastics which build up in our food supply as marine life consumes them. Currently, plastic is designed and utilized for an economy which extracts resources, produces goods, sells them and then disposes of them. To fix the waste problem, this economy must function more like nature so that everything is perpetually reused and recycled.
This means that companies must design their products so that they can be easily recycled at the end of their lifespan. Consumers must properly dispose of said products, meaning they must sort their recyclables and rinse out any contaminants such as food waste. Municipal curbside recycling programs should have customers separate paper and plastic rather than accepting them together in order to reduce contamination. One central reason China cracked down on its import policy is because of such high rates of contamination among recyclables, thus this is an essential change.
Additionally, large companies and the government should continue to create public information campaigns that encourage consumers to reduce consumption and demonstrate what is truly recyclable. Unfortunately many Americans “wish-cycle,” an industry term for putting items in the recycling when they are not truly recyclable. Hopefully, ad campaigns, combined with companies making their packaging greener, could reduce the occurrence of this.
One of the most important steps in addressing the waste crisis is to build an infrastructure in the US that can process paper and plastic into raw materials like plastic pellets and paper pulp, so they can be reused in the manufacturing process. Cheryl Katz for Yale Environment 360 reports that some Chinese companies will open processing plants in Huntsville, Alabama and Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Due to the hole China has left in the recycling market by announcing stricter import rules, many municipalities now are forced to send their recyclables to landfills. By building processing plants in the US, there could be domestic options for processing and recycling waste. As the state of recycling systems nationwide remains in flux, Berkeley has some options. Residents should continue to recycle and should strive to minimize how much they waste. They can lobby their representatives in government to express their interest in legislation that stabilizes the US recycling industry.