America has a recycling problem. Here’s how to solve it.

Last year, America’s recycling system broke down.

Ostensibly, China did the breaking. For years, China was home base for most of the world’s recycling, importing two-thirds of global plastic waste in 2016. Over the last 30 years, America and other countries have shipped more than 10 million metric tons of plastic to China. That came with plenty of social, economic, and environmental costs for China itself. So on the last day of 2017, the Chinese government issued new rules so restrictive that shipments of waste into China for recycling effectively came to a halt, meaning the U.S. had to deal with all its unwanted paper, plastic, and glass on its own.

China’s rules still stand, and America’s recyclable waste is piling up in landfills. But even before China started refusing shipments, our recycling system failed to actually recycle more than a fraction of the waste that went into it. Simply put, America’s recycling system isn’t efficient enough to deal with the amount of stuff Americans consume. Can it be fixed?

America’s recycling system has been a rickety, jury-rigged contraption for a very long time. The infrastructure was awkwardly duct-taped onto a waste management model that was purely linear: take resources from the natural world, use them, then toss them and move on. As a result, there isn’t really a good business model for recycling in America, which means few smart innovators have stepped in to make it better. The process can be complicated, and for many Americans, dealing with recycling is too much trouble to bother.

Meanwhile, there’s a deeper dissonance at play: The average American may be motivated to put their stuff in the recycling bin by an urge to protect the environment. But whether a plastic bottle actually gets a new life depends not on our good intentions, but on something far less altruistic: market changes and business cycles. Most recycling and waste management here in the U.S. is handled by private companies that partner with local governments. Like all businesses, recycling costs time, energy, labor, and resources. Profits depend on how expensive it is to recycle versus how expensive it is to just make new commodities with new materials. When the price of the latter falls below the former, the economic incentives disincentivize recycling.

The other problem is that recycling sites deal with huge and constant streams of waste, and have to separate out material that can be recycled from material that can’t. For instance, plastic shopping bags are often technically recyclable, but they tend to tangle up in the sorting machines. Normally recyclable materials contaminated with bits of food or grease or whatever are no good, either. What sorts of dyes and chemicals are used in plastics often determines which recycling facilities can (and can’t) handle them. And of course, some Americans just treat their recycling bin as a second garbage can.

This is why China was so important. American recyclers solved all these issues by just shipping huge portions …read more

Source:: The Week – Business


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