Is This the End of Recycling?
Last year, China restricted imports of certain recyclables. For decades, the United States had sent the bulk of its recycling there; now, waste-management companies are telling towns, cities, and counties that the market for their recycling no longer exists. These municipalities can either pay much higher rates to get rid of their recycling, or throw it all away.
As the trash piles up, Alana Semuels wrote in early March, American cities are scrambling to figure out what to do with everything they had previously sent abroad:
“Americans are going to have to come to terms with a new reality: All those toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles that didn’t exist 50 years ago need to go somewhere, and creating this much waste has a price we haven’t had to pay so far.”
There aren’t sufficient financial incentives for manufacturers to design products or packaging so that it can be easily recycled. And without carbon taxes and taxes on mercury pollution, for example, waste-to-energy plants can likely win the economic competition. Cities and organizations have struggled for decades to advance recycling beyond about 35 percent of the waste volume—plastics being a pernicious problem because of the many types and the many products using several types. It is a big mess and needs more specific regulations, likely nationwide or globally. Portland, Oregon, remains a good example of a viable basic setup: have recycling be free to new city residents, who pay only landfill fees. But this doesn’t solve much of the problem. Huge incentives need to exist for manufacturers to use recycled content in their products—e.g. 50 percent reduced corporate income or property taxes.