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Is Recycling a Myth: The Dark Side of Recycling Practices That Will Blow Your Mind

Many people feel good about their recycling practices. They do their due diligence and toss their plastic bottle or pizza box in the recycling bin with the peace of mind in knowing they aren’t littering. But is recycling a myth?

When looking into the "recycling game" further some of these recycling practices will blow your mind, and perhaps make you rethink about what you do with your trash.

Nearly a quarter of everything that gets thrown into a recycling bin actually can’t be recycled, and the stuff that is “technically” recyclable, won’t be.

This means that items such as plastic, paper, and other materials are piling up at recycling facilities, Most of which eventually end up in landfills.

In areas such as Sacramento, California, and Hooksett and New Hampshire, residents have had no choice but to throw items away.

With almost two-thirds of the US facing this crisis, it's clear there’s a failure in infrastructure.

If this is what the situation looks like in a first world country such as the US and UK alike, then it can only be imagined the massive lack of these facilities in poorer countries around the world.

Why is There a Lack in Recycling Infrastructure?

Living in the 21st century it is hard to believe that a country like the US still suffers from a lack of recycling infrastructure. As Green Living has become such a hot topic, and sustainability is a major concern for the world it seems that there is a major oversight in this sector.

What caused the recycling problem?

For nearly 25 years, China was the world's main recycling site. They purchased half the world's discarded paper, plastic, and metals.

Plastic alone equaled 45% of the world’s waste.

Then in 2018, China declared a ban on 24 categories of solid waste, such as scrap, plastic, and mixed paper. What’s more, items such as cardboard and scrap metal could only have 0.5 percent contamination such as food (a percentage that US recycling firms have said is impossible to meet).

Further compounding the issue, China is set to ban all forms of solid waste by 2021, according to a report by Resource.co.

Why is China making a change to their recycling policies?

In a word: Complacency.

In some cases, recyclable waste was sold to China with over 30% contamination. Essentially, China became the world's dumpsite.

Due to China’s (obviously valid) initial ban in 2018, almost 50 percent of all Earth's recyclables were diverted to other areas, particularly Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s imports tripled while Thailand’s increased 50 times.

Because of this, India banned plastic waste and tightened restrictions of mixed paper, Malaysia banned all imports of plastic and Thailand intends to do the same by 2021.

A dangerous pattern as grown as first world countries are now noticing the effects of using the poor to hide their own trash problems.

The consequences of abusing China's recycling project

In total, 186 countries have placed restrictions on the movement of plastic waste in particular, further disrupting export markets.

As a result, “the value of a ton of recycling has declined by about 40 percent over the past year” says David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

As it is today, there is no market for recyclables such as plastics or mixed paper.

All over the US, municipalities are stockpiling thousands of bales of recyclables in the hopes that “someday” the market will return.

While areas in the United States, such as Oregon and Massachusetts, prohibit the act of dumping recyclables in a landfill, many are acquiring waivers to do just that.

Other areas are raising their recycling rates, cutting back, or doing away with the programs altogether.

Recycling Plastic Waste

Plastic lasts for 1000 years. Literally.

And that chasing triangle with the note that says 100% recyclable?

Yes, it may be recyclable, but that does not mean that it will be. Even if you do your part and put that plastic container in the correct colored bin.

Legally, companies can put a 100% recyclable label on their produces, because strictly speaking it is the truth.

"It’s not their fault that it’s not getting recycled".

In May 2019, Malaysia returned 3,000 tons of plastic waste from the UK, US, Australia, and Canada.

The reason? Nearly 60 shipping containers were smuggled into illegal Malaysian facilities, all with contaminated plastic waste.

Why is it so hard to recycle plastic?

It’s not that it’s difficult, per se. In fact, as in most cases, it is all about the money.

It turns out, it’s cheaper to ship trash to a foreign country than it is to recycle it domestically.

Again - there is no market for recycling.

So companies ship it to distant lands, create an even bigger carbon footprint, and defeat the purpose of recycling in the first place.

It would seem that even the "Sustainable" practices are just a money based movement. Talk about Green Washing at its best.

Recycling Metals and E-Waste

Millions of tons of electronics such as televisions, phones, computers, and appliances are bought and thrown out in the United States every year.

While many countries have enforced measures to curb exporting e-waste to other countries, the US isn’t one of them.

And by the way… the US is a major producer of such technologies.

What is the problem with electronic waste?

Electronics are riddled with toxic materials.

LCD monitors have mercury that forms a toxin and damages the human nervous system and organs when exposed.

Batteries and circuit boards in computers contain cadmium. This substance is linked to bone structure deformities in animals.

These used products are shipped to nations where the materials are often burned in the open air or treated with acid baths to “get to the goods,” so to speak.

Workers then sift through the remains for small scraps of valuable metals such as gold.

The negative effects of E-Waste recycling

In 2007, an Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) study found that of the children living in the e-waste recycling town of Guiyu, China, 81.8% had elevated blood lead levels (BLLs), compared to 37.7% in neighboring areas.

In the same town, a 2008 Pubmed study showed heavy metal dust particles were hundreds of times higher than towns located close by.

These heavy metals were not only found in the air that was being breathed but were also present in food markets and the town’s schoolyard.

Clothing Waste

There’s nothing like getting a new pair of threads.

And with 24 new collections being created by major fashion houses every year, there’s no shortage of variety.

Unfortunately, we are living at a time when clothing is a throw-away commodity.

In China, the average wear of an item used to be 200 times. It’s now down to 62. In America, the amount was 50. It’s now 40.

Putting this into perspective, most pieces of clothing are only worn for the equivalent of 1-2 months.

To put it another way, of the 53 million tons of clothing manufactured annually, 73% gets incinerated or ends up in landfills.

Why does so much clothing go to waste?

While 95% of end-of-use textiles and clothing are recyclable, less than 1% of clothing fibers are.

The fact is, the technology isn’t there to recycle clothing fibers on a large scale.

  • This means only 12% of textile fibers are down-cycled into insulating materials or cleaning cloths.

  • Another 12% gets lost as manufactured scraps or destroyed as an unsalable surplus.

  • An extra 1% becomes micro-plastic in waters as a result of washing synthetic fibers.

While cotton has always been considered a gold standard of the clothing market, nearly 60% are of cotton-polyester blends.

What’s polyester made of?

Crude oil. Which emits 3 times more CO2 than cotton.

These blends of cotton and polyester (and other blends) make it difficult to recycle because the fibers have to be separated before reuse.

As it stands companies don’t know how to do this efficiently.

At this moment in time recycled clothing is chopped. Chopping degrades the quality of the material, meaning only a limited amount of it is reused for clothing.

Of course, there are always second-hand stores.

In the age of online shopping, thrift stores are great for finding good clothing.

But they only go so far. While it’s nice to think that you’re doing your part by donating, a vast majority goes to countries like Ukraine, Poland, Pakistan, and Ghana.

In some areas, such as poorer countries in Africa, the huge imports of clothing are causing long-term disposal problems due to their excess.

Is There an Answer to the Recycling Problem?

So is there a solution to the recycling problem? And if there is what is the answer?

The answer is yes, and it's called a circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy is recycling in its truest form.

Waste is designed out completely so that each part of a product is used and reused.

When old parts have run past their prime, they are disassembled and redesigned for upgraded models.

Purchases are based on a lease agreement instead of out-right owning it. Once the customer is ready for an upgrade (or the product breaks down), the product is sent back to the company for re-assembly or upgrade.

In a circular model, bio-products are made of non-hazardous materials. They can then return safely to the biosphere or be used for regeneration.

This is a fairly new concept, but one that is bound to become mainstream if the world is to avert burying itself in trash.

And look, we’re not there yet. Besides drastically overhauling our recycling infrastructure, we need to rethink the way we consume. The way we dispose. The way we inform ourselves about our purchases.

Companies have to practice transparency. They need to disclose all information about their carbon footprint, packaging, and practices. They have to inform the average consumer where their dollars are going.

What can you do about waste and the recycling problem?

  • “Try to reduce your consumption,” says Waste Dive Reporter, Cole Rosengren. “Just because you’re recycling doesn’t mean you’re absolved of your environmental footprint on the Earth.”

  • Get educated about your local municipality. Find out what can and cannot be recycled. When something is recycled, don’t just toss it. Wash it and dry it. (And by the way - plastic bags are not recyclable.)

  • Speaking of plastic bags, stop using them. Enough said.

  • Be mindful of the packaging. Switch to bars of soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Purchase products that come in glass, paper, or have alternative packaging solutions. Subscribe to companies that encourage sending used packaging back to them for reuse.

  • Ask yourself if you need the thing. Is it broken? Do you want to upgrade? Why?

  • Stop buying new clothes. Yes, really. It can be done. It’ll save you a ton of money and you’re likely to get something that’s as good - if not better quality - as the one in the store. Remember - most items are only used 3 or 4 dozen times before they’re tossed.

  • Invest in high-quality. If you have to make a purchase, make sure it’s something you’ll keep for a long time. If you find it difficult to justify the price, look at it this way: You’re consuming less on other items to save money for the quality items you need.

  • Research the companies you buy from. Where and how do they source their materials? Do they respect the environment? Are they kind to their workforce and communities? Do they use questionable chemicals? Whatever you choose to use, company practices integrate into your body, your life, and your environment.

On the bright side, China did us a favor. No longer are we allowed to produce long-lasting disposable garbage without it staring us in the face. And that’s a good thing!

At the end of the day, we have to recognize that we all contributed to the state we’re in.

A final note: Businesses and corporations are at our mercy. And deep down they know it.

All we have to do is choose. Remember, the choice is yours. You can be the change.

About the Author

Cheyenne Shaner is an eco-conscious copywriter focused on promoting green companies and educating the public to make the world a better place. Need help with your marketing? Go to her website, cheyenneshaner.com, or email her at cheyenne@cheyenneshaner.com.

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