China no longer wants our garbage. That includes recyclables. Other developing countries have their own growing waste issues. So it’s unlikely that waste formerly bound for China will be diverted to another country — at least, not for very long.
Across the United States, the recycling business is grappling with reducing contamination, narrowing collected materials to those with market value, improving processing and educating more effectively.
Communities are renegotiating agreements with recycling processors. Some are reverting to separate collection of paper and containers from the easier but dirtier all-recyclables-in-one-bin to reduce contamination. Some are ceasing collection of some materials — particularly glass, which mostly hasn’t been recycled for years.
This shake-up in the recycling market is an opportunity to rethink our overall waste management strategy and to re-evaluate the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle — to just stop being so wasteful.
This is the time to put more emphasis on reducing waste creation. Take plastic bags — actually, don’t. They are bad for most recycling programs and their equipment, as well as being an environmental disaster — especially the marine environment. The proposed New York State ban on single-use plastic bags is an important initiative for reducing waste and improving recycling programs. Support it.
Excessive packaging remains a problem — too many containers containing a container, often not recyclable. If manufacturers of plastic packaging made the resin codes easier to read, there would be less confusion about what is recyclable, reducing the contamination problem that undercuts the value of true recyclables.
Glass bottles can be reused, and there are opportunities developing for recycling them as well. Perhaps a product that traditionally has been stored in glass can transition to another more recyclable material such as aluminum.
This also is the opportunity to wean ourselves from plastic water bottles. We are not among those unfortunate people around the world who have no clean water. Bottled water costs on the order of 100 times as much as tap water. Certainly, an expanded bottle bill in Albany would provide a cleaner recycled waste stream than curbside pickup.
There are opportunities for entrepreneurs. Are there products that can be developed using recycled plastic resins? Can aspects of the U.S. paper industry be revitalized using recycled stock?
Perhaps waste-to-energy facilities can improve their recycling of metals. And, if plastic resins with no recycled value are diverted to WTE plants rather than tossed in landfills, at least there could be energy extracted for the electrical grid.
Communities need to aggressively remind residents of the importance of recycling. People are still largely unclear concerning what can and can’t be recycled. Public service announcements are critical. Most important, schools need to once again energize young minds about the value of waste reduction and recycling.
Despite the significant setback in the recycling market we are experiencing, we should view the situation as an opportunity and a challenge to reset waste-management targets.
There is a bright future for recycling, particularly if we go back to the basic premise of waste reduction. Then the recycling enterprise can become more focused on improving processing and creating viable markets for materials that truly have value.
R. Lawrence Swanson is associate dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at Stony Brook University. Carl Safina is a professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University.