What happens when China stops picking up our recycling?

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Check out this article from our director, Matt Wittek on the latest changes to Chinese laws in regards to picking up North America’s recycling and what that means for our environment.

One of the first community wide curbside recycling systems was implemented in University City, MO in 1974. At the time I’m sure it was rightfully celebrated by many cities, states, and countries around the world as a viable solution to a big waste problem.

I can picture the excitement and anticipation as the first recycling bins were designed and delivered to residents around the city. There must of been lots of chatter at local coffee shops and countless questions as the community learned about this game changing environmental solution.

Just imagine the first people carrying their recycling bins to the curb not sure what would happen next.

But what if the recycling bin never got picked up?

If instead- it just sat at the end of their driveway waiting for the recycling truck that never came? What would happen the next week? Would people just keep keep throwing more bottles and newspapers in until it was full…hoping the truck would show up? What would happen when it was full? Perhaps they would start filling a second bin in their garage. In time, as their recycling bins and garage filled up…people would run out of options and would be forced to start throwing their recycling in the garbage (after all it’s the only truck that keeps showing up).

As of January 1st, 2018…this is effectively what China said to the world. China who was accepting 51% of the worlds plastic scrap said “no more”. No longer will they accept the worlds recycling and everyone will just have to find someone else to pick it up.

Just like that our countries big blue box won’t be getting picked up anymore.

Wait a minute. What!? Are there not other options?

Of course, here are the most likely scenario’s:

1) We incinerate all of our excess recycle waste, 2) We send our recycling to landfill, 3) We store the recycling and wait for someone else to clean up our mess

But…can’t we just build another local recycling plant and send a truck to pick it up?

It’s possible…but the fact is- if it doesn’t make sense financially no one will do it.

As it turns out making new plastic is super cheap in the United States (it happens to be the cheapest place in the world to make virgin plastic). So, if it’s more cost effective to produce new resin than recycle your soda bottles… why would the private or public sector build recycling facilities? With no place to send our recycling the contents of the recycling bin is worthless. The result- even more virgin plastic being produced- According to Bloomberg, U.S. exports of one common plastic are expected to quintuple by 2020.

Who’s to blame for this mess?

China? Consumable product manufacturers? The chemical companies that make plastic?

Of course not…

China was helping to clean up our mess for decades and the reality is that plastic can be a good thing with lots of practical and necessary applications in todays world.

The problem is how much we consume. We consume so much that we need to send 51% of our excess to another country.

But what’s the solution?

Are new and innovative solutions needed? Yes, but that’s a blog for another time…

For now, there are simple actions that we can take today that can have a big impact.

After all- we’re only in this mess because we are consuming too much. We wouldn’t have to ship our recycling bins across the globe if we simply reduced and reused more.

I’ve spent my entire career building programs that promote reuse at offices, campuses, retailers, and events around the world. I might be a little biased, but I have always believed that reuse is a simple and viable solution that can significantly reduce the waste we generate. It’s more relevant than ever and the fact is each time you reuse you are reducing waste. Less waste = less garbage and less recycling.

What is the potential impact of reuse?

As an example, Americans use 50 billion plastic water bottles each year of which about 12 billion are recycled. That’s 12 billion bottles that end up in our recycling bins and until this year were destined for China. We can solve the problem of excess plastic water bottles and we don’t need to spend more money, we don’t need to drink any less water, and we don’t need to be inconvenienced in anyway. All we need to do is bring a bottle with us when we go to the gym, school, office, or our kids soccer practice. It is so simple and can have an immediate impact for the planet (and you will save some money too).

I am hopeful that China’s decision to stop picking up our recycling bin will cause us to pause and think about all the waste that we generate. The good news is- there are simple things we can all do today that will help solve the problem.

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