Civic Duty or Scam?


I can recall growing up during a time when recycling had to be, aluminum, plastic, and paper.  Times changed and things became simple. One blue bin.  How could I not do my part to help save the world?  Some say this new ease of recycling has led to a  false sense of entitled consumerism. It’s ok to buy endless products packaged in plastic and cardboard because I am recycling… right? Soon I started to read articles and hear stories about all of the problems with recycling and how many of the items people thought were recyclable were not actually recyclable. 

plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons

I learned that the majority of recycled waste was shipped to China.  In some cases the recycling waste aboard the ships fell overboard into the ocean.  This debride has contributed to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to National geographic, plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons. Is it still beneficial to the environment to send our waste across the ocean? To further complicate the matter, a couple of years ago, China decided to no longer accept a significant portion of our recyclables.  So the recycling industry in the United States has been forced to come up with alternative solutions including throwing the waste into landfills or burning the waste for energy.  The industry doesn’t want to tell the public that recycling is a waste because that would jeopardize years of campaigning.  So which is it?  Am I helping to save the world? Or is it all a scam?

The Rise Of Recycling

A recent report by NPR and Frontline shed light on the involvement of the plastics industry in misleading the public regarding recycling.  Several decades ago, there was a huge push from lobbyists in the petrochemical industry to promote the  benefits of recycling.  In the 1980s and 90s, public support for plastics was dwindling. The industry needed to sell recycling so people would no longer vilify plastics.  Not only did this campaign work to de-escalate the fears of plastic consumption, but it also brilliantly shifted the ownership of the problem from the producers to the consumers.  Tens of millions of dollars was spent on advertisements, recycling projects, and public relations promoting the benefits and necessity of recycling plastics.  However, according to internal documents as early as the 70s, the industry leaders knew that recycling on a large scale wasn’t feasible.  Many of the recycling projects they promoted ended without ever reaching their goals.  According to the EPA, over the last 40 years, less than 8% of plastic waste has been recycled.

Single stream recycling

Single stream recycling rapidly grew in popularity starting in the mid 1990s.  These programs allowed participants the ability to place all recyclables in one bin which resulted in increased participation and reduced collection costs.  However, the single stream system is more costly to maintain as it has resulted in an increase in a mix of nonrecyclable items which requires additional resources to separate the waste products.

China And Their National Sword

China to the rescue!

As America’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods continued to grow, China stepped in to help fill the need by shipping freight loads of product to our shores.  At the same time, recycling was building steam.  However, the cost of separating single stream recycling was cost prohibitive.  Meanwhile, the shipping containers delivering goods made in China were being shipped back to China empty.  It presented a win-win situation.  Americans could send their recyclable waste back to China where there was cheap labor to sort and reuse the material.  Prior to China’s crackdown, the US was sending 70% of its plastic waste to China and Hong Kong.  By 2016, the U.S. was exporting nearly 700,000 tons a year to China.  It is estimated that 70% of the world’s plastic waste or 7 million tons/year was being sent to china. 

China’s National Sword policy

After years of processing the world’s trash, in 2018, China implemented their National Sword Policy.  China would no longer take the significantly contaminated recyclable goods and instead would only take waste at a 0.5% contamination rate or less.  This has upended the global recycling community, causing many to find alternative solutions for their waste.

Where Is The Waste Going?

A substantial amount of the plastic waste has been redirected to places like Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, India, Malaysia, Senegal, and Vietnam. Unfortunately, many of these countries have a higher risk of improper management with high leakage rates.  The systems are not as advanced to deal with mixed recycling.  In fact, many of the countries in southeast asia have become overwhelmed with the volume of waste and have cut back on imports.


Over the past 40 years, greater than 78% of the plastic waste has ended up in landfills.  With the implementation of the National Sword, many american companies have resorted to placing their plastic waste in landfills.  This is significantly detrimental to the environment as landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the country.

Waste to energy

15% of the plastic waste from the past 40 years has been combusted.  The U.S. is burning six times the amount of plastic that it is recycling.  It is true that burning plastic does create energy.  However, this comes at the expense of admitting carbon emissions and other harmful chemicals such as mercury and lead.  To make matters worse, 8 in 10 of these incinerators releasing carcinogenic pollutants are located in poor communities or communities with a fewer percentage of whites than the country as a whole.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Recycling isn’t all doom and gloom

Experts are in agreement that recycling is an essential method to reduce litter and waste and to recover valuable materials, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving significant amounts of energy and water. In fact, glass and metals can be recycled indefinitely without loss of quality. Recycling aluminum can save 95% of the energy required to make a new aluminum can from raw material.  Paper can be recycled 5 to 7 times and then it can still be used for lower grade paper products like egg cartons.

Plastic recycling will still face challenges

Unlike glass, metal, and paper, the situation is just getting worse for plastic recycling.  Oil and gas are becoming cheaper.  Will the transition of the transportation industry away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy push the oil and gas industry to look towards plastics for revenue?  It is and will become even cheaper and easier to make virgin plastic products which are inherently of better quality when compared to the reused plastic counterpart.

New Innovations

China’s decision to create the National Sword policy has forced the recycling community to adapt and will likely require innovation.  Some material recovery facilities are already growing and improving their operations through new equipment and additional workers to help with sorting the waste.  New recycling equipment uses heating to melt adhesive to separate plastic windows from paper envelopes or uses magnets to remove staples and other metal objects from paper.

Circular economy

There is also talk of working to develop a more circular economy.  This means that the industry will be intentional in the development of their products that will be easily recyclable.  There are some skeptics of the industry leaders because these leaders claim that they recognize that their initiatives of the past didn’t work but this time with new technology, it will be different.  Only time will tell.  However, according to Pew’s experts, plastic waste into the oceans could be reduced by 80% over the next 20 years if a circular economy was established

Innovative companies

We should also look to innovative companies finding new ways to do business. Like Zero who is on a mission to remove single-use plastics from the food system. Instead, they use reusable jars, boxes, and other sustainable packaging.  Not only are they environmentally friendly, but they also claim to be a cheaper grocery delivery service than the competition. Goodr is working to reduce waste and save money with food delivery by providing a secure ledger that tracks an organization’s surplus food.  The reduced edible food surplus is then shared with local communities in need, which further reduces landfill waste.  Dr. Lisa Dyson, the CEO and founder of Kiverdi and her team are fully embracing the circular economy with their exciting technology that breaks down products into their elemental form to build them back in an eco-friendly manner. 

At the end of the day, we all need to do our civic duty to stay informed.  It comes back to the 3 Rs I learned in elementary school..  Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.  The more we reduce our consumption of environmentally harmful products, the more we reuse our products, the less we will need to recycle.

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