Americans have settled into the false comfort of believing that, because they carefully separate their garbage into blue or green bins, they're doing their part to save the planet. As if Earth-consciousness boiled down to a single left or right toss of plastic. Communities around St. Louis and across the country are now discovering that life isn't nearly that simple.
What few of us think about after the left-right toss is where it all goes. The answer, more often than not, used to be China. But in January, China cut back on buying America's blue-bin loads, saying it was tired of being the developed world's dumping ground. A major problem was the frustration of Chinese recycling companies having to deal with too much garbage mixed in because consumers were too lazy to sort it all out beforehand.
The result is far higher costs for U.S. recycling companies. They in turn pass the cost on to cities, which then charge higher fees to residents. Many cities are having trouble finding companies willing to do the job of separating mixed recyclables.
The recycling network across the country is coming unraveled. In Sunrise, Florida, officials have begun burning recyclables for energy rather than absorb the higher costs charged by waste-management companies to sort and ship it, The New York Times reported. Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan said the solution is "not what most people think of as recycling, but it is better than the alternative" of dumping it in a landfill.
Even cities with exemplary recycling records, such as Philadelphia, face growing criticism for turning to incineration — and greater air pollution — as a temporary fix.
Contamination of recyclables with garbage can render even the most Earth-friendly processes ineffective, adding costs to businesses and complicating efforts to reduce reliance on landfills.
Americans are among the world's biggest consumers of plastics, which are the crux of the problem. Companies in China and India have developed methods to recycle plastics into an array of materials. When shredded, they can be turned into fillers for thermal jackets or made into shoes. When compressed, they can be made into plastic lumber for decking and siding.
Until recently, China has welcomed the prospect of accepting America's "problem" because innovative manufacturers had found ways to profit off our garbage. Now, even they are overwhelmed.
This is America's wake-up call. First and foremost, the nation needs to reduce its reliance on plastics and do a far better job of separating recyclable plastics from the rest of our garbage. But if more U.S. companies adopted innovative ways to turn those recyclables into merchandise Americans want, the jobs and profits could stay at home — where they belonged in the first place.
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