Without resilience, society would not advance. We face situations daily that can be seen as an opportunity to improve, or an excuse to quit. The world of recycling is facing a complex obstacle and communities worldwide are forced to adapt quickly and responsibly.
The United States exports approximately one third of its recycling and until recently, about half of that was being sent to China for processing. In July of 2017, China notified the World Trade Organization of its intent to ban the import of certain scrap materials by the end of 2017, which would include paper and plastic products. The China ban, known as the National Sword Policy, has resulted in a significantly disrupted global market. While this has caused several problems for the recycling community, it is essential to look beyond the stress and appreciate the potential for improvement this brings.
The National Sword Policy was imposed in an effort to decrease China’s environmental impact, which may sound like a paradox. However, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that a significant amount of material that China was importing was “contaminated” - meaning it had little to no value and could not be recycled. Essentially, China turned into the world’s wasteland. While this ban has come with several struggles, we must thank China for giving us the possibility to educate ourselves on the influence that our consumption and disposal patterns have on the environment as well as the economy.
Contamination and wishful recycling
“Contamination” is a serious buzz word in the recycling community right now. When a consumer places an item in their curbside recycling bin that cannot be processed at the materials recovery facility (MRF), that load is considered “contaminated” and goes to the landfill. This is a difficult problem to fix, but in most cases it occurs due to lack of education. Other times, contamination happens on purpose when people view their recycling bin as an additional trash bin and treat it as such.
Contamination can sometimes be attributed to the practice of “wishful recycling”. Wishful recycling is when a person assumes an item can be recycled, but actually cannot be processed at the MRF. Wishful recycling leads to a contaminated load, which results in that load being sent to a landfill rather than be recycled. While wishful recycling is backed by good intention, it results in more harm than help.
To put it in perspective, let’s say one of our Battle Creek neighbors has accumulated plastic bags from a recent Meijer trip. They want to get rid of the bags, and since the bags are made of plastic and say “please recycle” on them, the individual puts the bags in their curbside recycling bin. Once the bin is collected by Waste Management, it is brought to a transfer facility and finally ends up at a MRF. Certain MRFs are built to handle certain items. Most curbside programs send materials to MRFs that are not equipped to process plastic bags (amongst several other materials – more on those later). If a plastic bag goes through a traditional MRF, it gets tangled in the equipment, leading the facility to close down, which leads to loss of productivity and expensive repairs.
I’ve heard it said several times that “contamination levels have increased” recently in recycling. It is more accurate to say that contamination levels have always been high, but only now are we, quite literally, paying the consequences.
How to help
While it is evident that the recycling community faces many challenges ahead, all hope is not lost. Individuals can still demonstrate their environmental stewardship and recycle properly by following a few pieces of advice:
1. Stick to the Basics: Empty and clean plastic bottles and containers, cans, paper, and clean cardboard should be recycled.
2. When in Doubt, THROW IT OUT: If you are unsure if an item can be recycled in your curbside program, it is better to throw that item in the trash rather than risk contaminating your entire load. (This may include items such as: coat hangers, garden hose, etc.)
3. Wash and DRY: Make sure any bottles or cans are emptied, rinsed, and dried before being put curbside.
4. Do Not Bag Recyclables: Please do NOT put your recyclables in a plastic bag and then in your container. Keep your items loose or they will likely end up in a landfill.
5. Food Waste: Food waste does not belong in the recycling bin. If you do not want to throw food waste in the trash, consider composting.
6. Educate Yourself: Become familiar with your City’s recycling regulations. Battle Creek residents can check out online resources such as:
7. Specialty Collections: Calhoun County residents have the opportunity to recycle specialty items for FREE multiple times a year. This may include items such as: electronics, Styrofoam, household hazardous waste, and tires. Collection dates are posted on www.calhouncountyrecycling.com
8. Other Resources: Remember, while some items can be recycled, they may not be accepted by your curbside recycling program. Do some research on specialty items – there are several opportunities to responsibly dispose, often free of charge. Several grocery stores recycle plastic bags; some electronic stores will take computers and other electronics at no charge.
9. Choose to Reuse: Make a conscious effort to diminish your dependence on single use items. Invest in a reusable mug, reusable shopping bags, a reusable water bottle, etc. Avoid straws, plastic silverware, and Styrofoam take-out containers when you can. These little efforts can make a huge impact. (Pro-Tip: Several coffee shops offer discounts when you use your own reusable mug! Some stores also offer perks when you use a reusable bag.)
10. Consider the Consequences: As mentioned earlier, certain MRFs are equipped to handle certain items. Plastic bags getting tangled in equipment cause loss of productivity and cost money to repair. However, some items have much more dangerous consequences. When batteries are wishfully recycled curbside, it can result in fires at the MRF, putting employees in serious danger. Please try to consider the lives of those who work in this field and handle your recycling.
China’s National Sword policy has forced global communities to clean up their recycling habits. This is a complex, multi-faceted problem and there will not be one solitary solution. I encourage individuals to reflect on consumption patterns, consider the lifecycle of every purchase you make, educate yourself on proper recycling protocol, and share this knowledge with friends and family. Let’s take this challenge and use it as an opportunity to promote better recycling habits and make a positive difference in the world.
Any specific questions regarding recycling may be submitted to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lizzy Paul is the environmental program coordinator for the City of Battle Creek