Communities across the nation have promoted the virtues of recycling, and millions of Americans have dutifully segregated their wastes to “save the planet.”
However, now many of those programs have started to end because of escalating costs.
Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.
Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.
“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.
Prompting this nationwide 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.
China has become an additional component in the equation because the country used to be content with having a large population of low wage workers. Apparently, the Chinese now aspire to have better quality jobs. It seems the Asian giant no longer wants to purchase American waste.
“In the Greater Boston area, 80 to 90 percent of our material had gone to China,” says Gretchen Carey, president of MassRecycle, a statewide industry organization.
She says the price for mixed paper, for instance, has dropped from $75 a ton to less than $5. The shift, she says, “basically took our entire world and shook it like a snow globe.”
The global glut of recycled materials has turned local municipal budgets upside down. Massachusetts cities and towns, which are are required to recycle household materials, are now scrambling to pay for something that used to turn a profit.
The US has opened up more oil resources, which has helped lead to the end of recycling:
…[R]ecycling is also expensive and time-consuming. It requires a tremendous amount of water and energy, in addition to money and effort to build the proper infrastructure. Due to the falling costs of oil prices, virgin plastic is actually cheaper to make than using recycled materials.
I would like to think that part of this trend is related to the fact Americans are more wary of blindly following the latest eco-activism dictates. In a wonderful analysis, libertarian pundit John Stossel reviewed the facts and data behind recycling. He concluded that, with the exception of recycling aluminum cans, recycling was a waste of resources and energy:
* There are plenty of landfills.
* Recycling glass is reclaiming sand, which is a very common resource.
* Shipping the materials to a recycling center requires far more energy and resources (e.g., more trucks, more gasoline).
There have been so many environmental “facts” that have turned out to be fallacies. Clearly, recycling isn’t the solution that was originally touted.
Perhaps, if we can encourage China to landfill its plastics efficiently, there will be an effective solution to the plastic pollution “crisis” in the ocean.DONATE
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