Eco Home Living

Published on April 23rd, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips


What Happens When We Recycle? (And Why Recycling is Changing)

Recycling has been on the forefront of the green movement since the 1970s. It makes individuals and businesses alike feel better about the amount of trash we all produce. But lately the face of recycling is changing, and more people are pulling back the facade of greenwashing around many peoples’ favorite way to be a little bit “green” without much effort.

Where does it all go?

The answer to this question is the reason why the face of recycling is changing dramatically. Most people generally know that recyclable materials such as plastic go in the recycle bin, get sorted out by number, and go to some facility where they get melted down and reshaped into new plastic products. What most people don’t realize is that recycling is not a municipal service like trash disposal. It’s a global market, in this case for used plastics. That’s right – companies and countries buy and sell our junk plastic.

Like many manufacturing industries in the last several decades, China has dominated the used plastics market in the recent past. Until recently (2017, to be exact), China was importing nearly half of the world’s used plastic. Plastics were simply baled in their country of origin and shipped to China to be re-manufactured into other products.

Why is recycling changing?

In July 2017, China notified the West that enough was enough, and it wouldn’t be taking their trash anymore. As of January 1 2018, China enacted an import ban on paper and plastic waste. This has thrown recycle markets into an unprecedented upset. Plastic recyclables have been piling up in cities in the USA, Canada, Australia, the EU, and other developed nations. Some cities are stockpiling it hoping a new market will open up, while others have been forced to send it to the landfill or incinerator.

Now it’s more important than ever to decrease and eventually stop our reliance on single use plastics.

What about paper?

Paper recyclables are affected by the same Chinese policy as plastics, unfortunately. In fact, a New York Times report stated that some recyclable paper even has a negative value as a result of the market upset – costing more to recycle than to trash. So we definitely need to focus on decreasing paper waste as well as plastic.

Really the only difference between the paper and plastic dilemmas is that paper is generally biodegradable with a much lower level of toxins than plastic. Your home composting system can even handle some paper waste. And if it ends up in the landfill instead of the recycling plant, it’s doing less harm for less time than plastics with the same fate. The same goes for glass.

Here’s 6 things you can do to reduce your waste footprint and help solve the recycling crisis:

Everyone has a part to play in keeping recyclable materials out of the waste stream. Here’s some ideas to get you started!

  1. Practice cutting single use plastics from your normal grocery shopping routine. Food packaging is one of the biggest offenders. Or –
  2. Go zero waste at the grocery store altogether. 
  3. Go zero waste with your personal care items. This is another big offender in single use plastics!
  4. Pack a zero waste lunch every day, or even start with twice a week. Think about all the waste takeout food creates.
  5. Reuse, reuse, reuse! Bring your own water bottle, coffee cup, bags, takeout containers, cutlery, straws – watch what you throw away for a week and decide what reusable alternatives you can invest in.
  6. Buy local. Transporting food and merchandise typically creates a greater need for packaging, not to mention the fossil fuels it takes to ship. Try to buy food from farmer’s markets and gifts from local artisans whenever possible.

Attribution-free image courtesy of Pixabay

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