We can’t send plastic to China anymore. What happens to our recyclables now?

workers in recycling plant

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post, on November 25, 2019

Americans are good at a lot of things: making cheese, sending astronauts to space, playing football. But we’re bad at recycling. We recycle only 34 percent of the paper, glass, plastic and other stuff that we could, according to Beth Porter. She’s the climate and recycling director for Green America, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainability.

In January 2018, the United States got a little worse at recycling. China used to buy 700,000 tons of plastic alone from us every year, to make into new products. Then the country stopped buying almost all our recyclables. Suddenly, our bottles, cans and newspapers had nowhere to go.

How did this happen?

“We were lazy and didn’t keep up with the latest technology to sort paper from plastic and aluminum at recovery facilities,” says Randy Hartmann. He is senior director of affiliate operations for an organization called Keep America Beautiful. We sent everything all mixed up to China. The country couldn’t use our “contaminated” trash. China updated its standards. Then, says Hartmann, “we couldn’t meet them.”

Some cities, such as Eugene, Oregon, couldn’t afford to collect certain types of plastic anymore. Other cities, including Phoenix, Arizona, saw an opportunity. Hartmann says Phoenix has created a “circular economy” of its own. It now collects its community’s plastic trash and turns it into fuel.

Some businesses have stepped up, too. An Australian paper company called Pratt Industries built a paper mill in Ohio to take mixed-paper recyclables. That includes junk mail fliers that “got hit hardest when China changed their rules,” according to Hartmann.

A company called TerraCycle sends out special “zero waste” boxes for collecting lots of products, including plastic bottle caps, action figures or art supplies. After you fill the box, you send it back to the company to recycle everything inside.

Still other companies are turning plastic grocery bags, juice cartons and even cigarette filters into plastic “lumber.” Local governments are helping by getting better at teaching people what can and cannot be tossed in the recycling bin.

“They’ll come out and look in your cart and say, ‘Oops, your gardening hose and holiday lights shouldn’t be in here!’ ” Hartmann says.

Recycling facilities are also starting to update their equipment. Instead of using humans to sort paper, plastic, glass and metal by hand, they are buying machines that can sort things robotically, or even optically — that is, with a camera that can tell the difference between materials.

It’s going to take a year or two to get this new equipment up and running. But, says Hartmann, “It’s a great time to reset, and a lot of innovative things are happening out there.”

We still have a way to go before we are doing recycling just right, Porter says. “Companies must learn from recyclers how to make products and packaging that are recyclable. And they also need to use more recycled materials in making their products,” she says.

We need local governments to develop pro-recycling policies, too. And most of all, says Porter, “we need to practice the three R’s in order: reduce first, then reuse and lastly recycle.”

Recycling tips

1. Learn what can be recycled in your own community and stick to it. No “wish-cycling.”

2. Learn recycling best practices. Rinse bottles and cans, and cut the super-oily spot from the pizza box before recycling the rest. Learn more from the Recycling Raccoon Squad at recyclingraccoons.org.

3. Print out your local recycling rules and paste them on the bins. That way, everyone in your family can do it correctly.

4. Away from home? Find a recycling bin for your empty water bottle. Better yet, take a reusable water bottle.

5. Get your teachers involved. Have them take your class on a field trip to a local recycling facility. Write letters to local politicians asking them to support the “three R’s.”