You want to know why China stopped accepting most of the plastic and “fiber” (industry term for paper and cardboard) that we shipped them, causing our recycling costs to soar and the industry to freak out? Various geopolitical factors no doubt were a factor, but a big part is our laziness, as I note in my column this week:
Near the end, I was told (at a regional meeting of the recycling industry), it wasn’t uncommon for 20% of a shipment to be contaminated with, say, food-stained packaging or the wrong kind of plastic or broken glass amid the cardboard. In other words, out of every 100 tons of material we allegedly recycled, as much as 20 tons was being pulled out by hand in China and burned in the open air or tossed into unlined garbage pits. Yuck.
Now that we can’t get away with this anymore we’re all scrambling to change. You and I see this in education programs about what to not put into our single-stream bins or how to separate material in places where you head to the transfer station.
The corporate world is also starting to move, too, recreating some of the domestic recycling industry that went bankrupt when we all sent our material to China to save a few bucks. Crushing glass to use as aggregate in roadwork is starting to take off and several paper mills, including one in Rumford, Maine, are being refurbished so they can take old cardboard or even mixed paper and turn it back into a usable product.
There’s an ironic twist to the paper mill story: The big investor so far is Nine Dragons Paper, a Chinese company. American investors, I was told, are still leery after getting burned in the past decade when they spent millions on recycling mills and then couldn’t get enough raw material to stay in business.
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I’m not sure “laziness” is the right word. We’re talking about mandatory uncompensated labor, after all. How much effort can you expect when you’re offering a wage of $0.00/hr? (I think I do a pretty good job of following the ever-changing rules myself, but I’m not surprised to learn that many do not.)
Perhaps the question is whether the “mandatory uncompensated labor” is merely part of the price we all pay for a cleaner world. Perhaps some folks would gladly voluntarily pay someone to sort their trash. But recycling must continue for all our sakes.
It is a problem. Today I volunteered to dispose of an office chair for a friend, they had taken most of it apart. I did take off arm rests which were not metal, and then I threw the rest of it in the “metal” container at Nashua and wondered if I should have also removed the plastic wheels. While at the metal bin I witnessed a woman throw away a metal lamp. I suggested that she take off the shade so it could be put in the regular rubbish, which she did but then threw it into the metal bin anyway. As an after thought she also threw a glass table top into the metal bin. I think there needs to more monitoring and assistance at the recycle centers and yes, maybe charging for recycling.
Reducing waste is the starting point …. It’s disgusting to get massively over packaged products … either to make them appear larger, or harder to shop-lift or whatever. It is not uncommon to have 90% of what you purchase disposable packaging … (from China in many cases) … even when it is properly recycled that is horrific.