Once regarded as a noble and promising idea that could help save the planet, the whole process of recycling our personal trash has, pardon the pun, gone down in the dumps.
“Four months after the closing of Tri-Cities Waste Paper [Inc. of Kingsport, Tennessee], the last local recycling facility that handled paper and plastics, many municipalities are making do or scrapping their recycling programs entirely,” said a story this past week by Leif Greiss in the Bristol Herald Courier,
According to the report, Abingdon, Virginia, no longer offers recycling services, while Washington County, Virginia, and Bristol, Virginia, accept only cardboard and metals.
Abingdon decided in January to begin offering curbside recycling to city residents, but that program ended in June.
Matt Bolick, Abingdon’s director of public works, said there is no longer a market for our discarded paper and plastic. The closest facilities that accept paper and plastic are in Roanoke, Virginia, and Knoxville, both of which are too far away to make a recycling program financially feasible, Bolick told the newspaper.
We are not alone. The recycling industry across the nation and around the world is experiencing major problems, with much of the blame centered, at least for now, on the decision by China in January 2018 to stop accepting most of our our discarded recyclables.
Up to that point, China had been the market for “more than 40 percent of American wastepaper, plastic, glass, metal, and other reusable materials,” according to a March report titled “The Recycling Crisis” on the website TheWeek.com.
“That’s when China banned most imports of ‘loathsome foreign garbage,’ including post-consumer plastic and mixed paper,” the report noted. “The recycling industry — which handles about 25 percent of America’s total waste — now has nowhere to send what it collects.”
Part of the problem might actually be our fault, as many of us aren’t very good at dividing up our trash and putting only truly recyclable items in our recycling bins, according to experts in the waste industry,
“Many Americans are what waste management experts call ‘aspirational recyclers,’” according to TheWeek.com. “Wanting to do their part for the environment, they put anything and everything into recycling bins — bowling balls, used syringes, even used diapers. This stuff wreaks havoc on the equipment [that] recycling companies use to automatically sort incoming trash.”
The article also noted that some items that are “theoretically recyclable” are “too dirty to be useful” — such as takeout pizza boxes, which “can’t be recycled because the grease can’t be separated from the cardboard fibers.”
There’s even a problem in how we attempt to recycle plastic bottles and cans, the story said. “If recyclers don’t wash the food and residue out of their used cans and plastic bottles, they’re also useless.”
And because of our sloppiness, “The expense of recycling this tainted garbage makes it cheaper for many companies to simply buy new materials, especially virgin plastic,” rather than purchase recycled materials for their manufacturing needs, the article said.
“We have not been successful at recycling,” Ellen MacArthur, an environmentalist who founded a group devoted to reducing plastic waste, told the Financial Times (London). “After 40 years of trying, we have not been able to make it work.”
What the future holds for the recycling industry remains to be seen. Facilities such as the now-shuttered Tri-Cities Waste Paper are run by private companies that must not only meet expenses, but also turn a profit to stay in business.
The rules of supply and demand are very much in play here. There’s too big a supply of recycled materials and too little demand for them in the marketplace.
But there could be a bright side to the move by China to stop accepting most of our recycled waste, according to the Financial Times in an October 2018 story on “The Global Recycling Crisis.”
“Now that China no longer wants to be the destination for the world’s recycling, the burden is shifting back to more developed countries such as the US, EU and Japan.” The Financial Times reported.
“‘In the long term it will prove positive, because we will have to focus more on our own recycling capacity,’ said Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for the environment. He estimates that an additional 250 sorting facilities and 300 recycling plants will be needed by 2025. For companies that make the necessary machines, sales are booming, and order books have developed a backlog,” the story noted.
And, the “same thing is happening in the US — and many of the investors there are Chinese,” the report said. “Unable to meet their demand for paper pulp or plastic pellets at home, China’s biggest recycling companies are purchasing mills or plants in America.”
In our region, local and Tennessee state officials are busy looking for a buyer that would reopen Tri-Cities Waste Paper so it could resume accepting our local recyclables.
We have to believe that the idea of recycling is still a good one, and that waste-management and economic-development people can eventually figure out how to make it work.
And in doing our part in our homes and small businesses, we need to learn how to be more selective and careful in presenting our own discarded trash for recycling.
There simply is going to have to be better awareness and execution on everyone’s part for this effort to be successful in the future.