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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