Let’s resurrect recycling. Americans made a good start at recycling until China, desperate for raw materials in the 1990s, began to take on almost all our mixed paper and plastics. These “recyclables” were baled and stuffed onto container ships bound for China to be processed under lax environmental controls. Much of it was simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the Pacific “garbage patch” and seriously jeopardize sea life. This continued for a quarter century while America’s once-robust capability to sort, clean and recycle its own waste deteriorated.

Then in 2018, a glutted China banned imports of dirty foreign garbage. Massive amounts of poor quality recyclables began piling up at U.S. ports and warehouses, and our recycling crisis was born: Local governments began hiking trash collection fees and stopping their recycling programs.

But there is still a market for clean, well-sorted recyclables if we rebuild our ability to sort properly and focus on quality, not quantity. Items like plastic straws, bottle caps, grocery bags, eating utensils, six-pack rings, yogurt containers, takeout food clamshells and shredded paper are theoretically recyclable, but they jam sorting machinery and lower the value of profitable materials they are mixed with, like aluminum cans, plastic bottles and clean paper.

We can recycle better and smarter. We can educate ourselves on how to properly clean and sort our recyclables. We can compartmentalize recycling containers: one for paper, one for everything else, minimizing contamination from food residue and liquids from bottles and cans that make recycling paper difficult.

Clearer, standardized instructions on recycling bins will help consumers improve recycling hygiene and reduce contamination. Manufacturers should be challenged to ensure that new packages and containers can be recycled.

Too many beverage containers end up in landfills. Container deposit laws requiring refundable deposits on single-use glass, plastic or metal beverage containers are already working well in 10 states.

We all know that recycling is the last resort, after reduction and reuse, but it still has its place if we clean up our act and do it properly.

(These recommended actions are taken from "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash" by Edward Humes)

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