How China ended the lie of recyclable plastic

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2021/01/14/how-china-ended-the-lie-of-recyclable-plastic.html

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That scene from The Graduate comes to mind every time I think about the problem of recycling, as well as the generational differences between the WW2 generation, the Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and beyond. It’s a great movie.

As a symbol of the 1960s “Boomer” Generation, Benjamin Braddock is great. He’s caught between the seductive nature of the Silent Generation (WW2ers) and his own. The movie ends with him and Elaine riding off in a bus, with some uncertainty on their faces, but seemingly free. But maybe not.

But in the end the Boomers chose plastics–literally and symbolically. It’s hard not to–the seductive ease of a single-use product that you’ve been told is recyclable is tough to resist. It doesn’t require any work or commitment–use it, throw it in a bin, and someone else will solve your problem. And to a large degree, the Xers (my own generation) made the same choice. Now we have to see if the mess we’re leaving can be fixed by the Gen Z and “Gen Alpha” crowd. What will happen to their Benjamin Braddock?

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@AndreaJames

A 2017 memo sent by China to the World Trade Center

I think you mean Word Trade Organization

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As a result, our municipality has dropped recycling collection to every other week, and in February they will stop accepting…glass? I just watched them recycle glass on Time Team. They were doing it to explain why it was so rare for archeologists to find glass, because broken glass items were invariably recycled.

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I’ve been hearing that many municipalities have stopped recycling, even though it’s still expected that customers continue the charade by insisting on sorting their paper, plastic etc.from wet trash. Like my Dad used ta’ say at dinner, “It all winds up in the same place anyway”.
In the mean while, this poor guy has been recycled since the mid 40s…

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Conservative: “But we can’t stop using disposable plastics, how would we package food?”

Me: “Oh yeah, uh huh, like for example Grover Cleveland never used plastics. . . and now he’s dead!

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Recycling economics is regional. The west coast shipped their plastic to China. So when China stopped accepting, it was a serious impact.

But in places in the Midwest (i.e. without as much access to those cheap shipping containers), many recycling programs are tied to local recycling streams. The profitability didn’t change when China stopped importing. Recyclers here still recycle the same stuff and make the same money. Nothing has changed.

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So what we do is pay the difference – the true cost – and then it works economically. Except we won’t, and blame it on them.

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Thank you so much for posting this, @AndreaJames. I think it’s second only to climate change as the mot important environmental story of the past several years. Recycling is basically dead for everything except some metals, but we’re still acting as though it’s part of the solution (which keeps people buying disposable containers and preventing any positive change). Planet Money did an excellent two part episode on this- not just why recycling is currently a lie, but why it has always been a lie. It never made economic or energy-consumption sense, except for some metals.

Citation? Everything I’ve read on this topic says no meaningful plastics recycling is happening anywhere in the world. See the Planet Money story- it makes no financial or energy-efficiency sense regardless of where you live.

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It’s a devil’s bargain because we need food, and there it is, in a shiny plastic container. This has to change at the retailer level, and (here’s the rub - somebody) needs to offer them alternatives that can scale very quickly.

I’d love to get on board with less/no packaging, but I rarely see that option and have a hard time imagining how long it’s going to take to get there (my lifetime?!).

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Well, we did have a whole world before plastic containers. They only started to become widespread in the 1960s.

We used to have milkmen. We wrapped food in paper and foil. We built an immense infrastructure of safe drinking water delivered to everyone’s home and workplace.

This “need” to wrap everything in plastic is recent and constructed by the plastics industry.

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My city stopped accepting glass at the beginning of 2019. The reasons given at the time were twofold: 1) Financial - the market for used and recycled glass had dropped out in most places, so recycling glass was really only profitable in certain locales. 2) Logistical - glass is both heavy and fragile, and collecting glass in the single-stream recycling common in most municipalities usually resulted in broken glass contaminating all materials collected, meaning everything had to be thrown out. This led to the quote from one city official in the newspaper: “Until we can find another recycler willing to accept glass, we urge consumers to switch to buying food in packages made of a more recylcable material such as plastic.”

:man_facepalming:

Fortunately it only took a few months for a local company to spring into existence to begin recycling glass. They don’t have curbside residential service but they do have collection bins stationed in a few places around the city. I believe they primarily turn glass into grit and aggregate for industrial uses but some of it apparently goes back into the consumer glass cycle.

All of which leads me back to how the single-stream recycling model is actually terrible. It may lead to higher participation but it inevitably results in less material actually being recycled.

Edit: Found a great article backing most of this up: https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6

Chemical & Engineering News
Why glass recycling in the US is broken
Americans turn old bottles into new ones at much lower rates than people in other countries. A recent analysis explains why.

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If only there were some way to make recycling economically preferable. Ah well, can’t think of anything.

Sigh.

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Partly that, and partly convenience as work became more of a grind and it became less financially feasible to have one person working and one at home to do time-consuming errands and cooking from scratch. Everything now is modeled for efficiency, and how do you turn that off? Bigger, faster, more, on every level of every function in life.

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Recycling has declined due to less profitability, but hasn’t stopped. Fees cities pay to keep it out of landfills help.

The company mentioned, Rumpke, is a large family owned business. One of their policies is for even management to go on a trash collecting run once a week. Which leads to a great story I heard second hand.

Woman was out with her young kid watching the garbage truck. She tells the kid “See, if you work that hard, you’ll be rich some day like Old Man Rumpke.” The garbage collector turned to her and said “I am Old Man Rumpke.”

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Sometime in the future maybe they will mine landfills for the resources? If so, then perhaps we should keep on recycling and put them in recycling specific landfills so that the future mining can be easier done without releasing the methane gas that builds up in landfills and contributes to global warming?

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This. So much this. Exactly this. Thank you.

The plastics industry, and we who consume, have shoved the externalities off onto the environment, and aren’t stopping. When our local garbage went to ‘mixed’ recycling, where everything “recyclable” goes into the same bin, I went to a public meeting and said our local paper recycler would be put out of business, and someday China would be too rich to import other countries’ waste. I was told this has worked across the country and would be a good thing. I am disgusted to have been proven right. As with all similar things, progress will come only with the imposition of real costs on the manufacturers and consumers of garbage.

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That’s an oversimplification. Here in Ontario, the Beer Store (which essentially exercises a government monopoly on beer sales) has had an incredibly successful recycling programme. I actually hate the Beer Store, but they demonstrate that deposit-based glass recycling can be done well.

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Re-use is the best recycling!

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Humans ruin everything.

As usual when dealing with most of societal issues at scale, governments must also get involved to incentivize desired behavior. If plastic isn’t economically feasible on it’s own, and the use of plastics can’t be reduced via free market capitalism, then government must get involved in order to balance out the difference.

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