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.
I truly believe that legislation must be passed requiring manufacturers to be responsible for recycling the packaging they use for their products.
When and how are we to hold corporations accountable for their role in producing waste? Some big companies have promised to reduce packaging and reduce single-use plastic by 2025. We have to hold them to that. In the meantime, real pricing of products—which includes the cost of dealing with plastic waste—would certainly make consumers think twice about using so many things so mindlessly. All this requires strong civil-society action, and sustained public pressure on big businesses. They do respond to such pressure. Much research is already under way on alternatives. Governments could incentivize and fast-track this research.
Bangalore, Karnataka, India
Your piece “Is This the End of Recycling?” ignores one obvious solution to the rising costs of recycling: taxing people enough to pay for this essential service. Indeed, the word tax does not appear once anywhere in the piece.
Someone writing about the crisis in recycling should not characterize recycling as simply being too expensive, because this accepts the framing of the issue from the tax-avoidance perspective. Rather, the writer should report from a more neutral standpoint that acknowledges Americans’ refusal to accept taxation on the level that is necessary to pay for important aspects of our civilization.
Americans’ pathological resistance to taxes has real consequences. Yet your piece leaves this self-destructive ideology completely unexamined, despite the central role that it plays in the issue of recycling.
New York, N.Y.
Is this the end of recycling? Let’s hope so. As the article by Ms. Semuels properly points out, recycling does not make economic sense for the companies that collect the recycled materials. It is often half the cost to bury the items that are collected for recycling. With just this data point, we can see that recycling does not add up. If you add the cost of the separate “streams” used to collect the stuff at the neighborhood level, and you add some value for the time misspent by households sorting their trash into three or four different bins, you do the math and see that it might make people feel good, but it is an inefficient use of resources.
Aluminum and glass containers can be recycled back into themselves—a “closed loop”—and aluminum pays for itself to be recycled.
I was a national spokesperson for Alcoa’s can-recycling activity for 12 years. The company spent about $100 million alone in promotional ads over that time and developed machinery, a national recycling network, and technology that was nonexistent when we started. We did this to protect the convenience package of the can, and so many good things happened as a result. If your story is true, I am greatly distressed.
John Van Devender
Require producers of products to take back both their packaging and the used-up products. They can charge a deposit or not. In addition, the entire supply chain needs to operate in both directions. If you buy a product in a store, that store must take back the packaging and the dead products to return them to the middleman supplier or to the manufacturer. If you get a product delivered, you return the waste by shipping it back to the place you bought from. Yes, Amazon is going to have to take back all the used packaging and products they sell us, and return the waste to the original producers or suppliers.
It is true the producer still might not recycle—it might be cheaper for the producer to simply dump the waste in a landfill. But there would be every incentive for companies to learn how to make better use of their waste, and for other companies to offer services using waste as feedstock. Either way, the cost and burden of dealing with waste would now fall on the producers, not cities or consumers. That should give the waste producers a lot more incentive to be more careful in how they design packaging and products, as well as more inventive and innovative in finding new ways to use the waste stream.
“The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff ...” No. The best way to fix recycling is to reduce the world’s population. The planet cannot support the current human population. There are too many people consuming too much of the planet’s resources and discarding the accompanying packaging.
Thank you for bringing attention to the growing recycling crisis. In developed countries, trash- and waste-management systems are often out of sight and therefore out of mind. The reality is that what happens to our waste affects all of us long after we’ve disposed of it.
And it affects the ocean, too. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, much of it coming from places around the world where people don’t have the luxury of recycling facilities or curbside trash pickup. With nowhere else to go, trash floats down rivers, eventually reaching the sea. That’s why alongside other measures to end plastic pollution, Ocean Conservancy has pushed to increase investment in waste collection and recycling. While we like to think of the U.S. as a model, the country is among the top 20 contributors to plastic flowing into our ocean. We can do better.
One action everyone can take today is reducing our reliance on single-use plastic. But the end goal is a circular economy where reusing materials is the preferred, cost-effective choice. Articles like this show that we have no time to lose.
Janis Searles Jones
CEO, Ocean Conservancy
Alana Semuels replies:
I talked to a few people who advocated for a “circular economy,” in which everything that is used is taken back and recycled. This may sound extreme, but there are certainly ways that big businesses or universities could get involved so that the economy is more circular, if not completely circular. Institutional purchasers such as universities or big tech companies could tell their suppliers that they won’t buy products like computers or telephones unless the suppliers pledge to take the products back at the end of their useful life and recycle or repurpose them. But there’s currently little incentive for them to do so.