For decades, recycling has been an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, but now it is on the verge of collapsing in many parts of the country. Due to rising operation costs and little payoff, hundreds of towns and cities across the country have either put restrictions on accepted materials or have cancelled public recycling programs, like curb-side pick-up, altogether. But the U.S. isn’t the only one facing growing waste problems. It seems the entire globe is at a loss of what to do with rising waste amounts, prompting a huge global recycling crisis.
“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasure of California, where recycling costs have increased significantly in large metropolitan cities, where recycling is critical to support the vast population of these areas.
Prompting this nationwide recycling reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions.
With fewer buyers, recycling companies are recouping their lost profits by charging cities more, in some cases four times what they charged just last year. Amid the soaring costs, cities and towns are making hard choices about whether to raise taxes, cut other municipal services or abandon an effort that took hold during the environmental movement of the 1970s.
For waste collectors, like Waste Management, recycling has been one of the least lucrative parts of their business, trailing behind hauling and landfill operations. Analysts say many waste companies had historically viewed recycling as a “loss leader,” offering the service largely as a means to win over a municipality’s garbage business. The recycling companies say they cannot depend on selling used plastic and paper at prices that cover their processing costs, so they are asking municipalities to pay significantly more for their recycling services. Some companies are also charging customers additional “contamination” fees for recycled material that is mixed in with trash.
But to keep our planet sustainable, recycling is a necessary effort. Despite the loss of government backed programs, some cities have established sustainable methods to keep recycling alive in their areas. For example, Philadelphia is burning half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that turns waste into energy that the city can then sell back to electrical grids. And Memphis is sticking material-specific recycling bins in every nook and cranny it can think of to help promote waste awareness. However, these are simply makeshift solutions that have very little impact on tackling the recycling crisis.
And the U.S. is not alone in this struggle. Australia, for example, has resorted to buying its trash, while Canada now sends some trash to landfills or burns it. Meanwhile, Germany and Ireland is still trying to figure out how to even approach the crisis.
Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam still buy recycled plastic in bulk, but no country has yet to take China’s place as a mass recyclables buyer. Even if they wanted to, some of these countries don’t have the proper infrastructure to handle the volume of recyclables China once processed on our behalf. But India and Malaysia are already following China’s footsteps in banning foreign trash.
Countries are getting sick of buying the West’s recycled trash. But burying and burning waste is no long-term solution for us. We must find a way to fix the global recycling system and quick, or we will all be drowning in plastic and e-waste alike.