Despite all of the proven environmental and economic benefits, the U.S. still doesn’t really care about recycling. Instead of investing in the technologies needed to properly sort and process plastic recyclables here at home, most states simply sell them off to China as scrap.
China recently announced a number of measures aimed at reducing its own carbon emissions, however, and no longer wants to accept our plastic waste. An initiative called Operation Green Fence stipulates that China will no longer accept poorly sorted or dirty shipments of recyclable waste from foreign exporters. As a result multiple states have limited the number of plastic items accepted for recycling, a step in the wrong direction for a country drowning in disposable plastics.
The May 2012 issue of ISRI (The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) Scrap states that in 2011, the U.S. collected 52.8 million tons of recycling and exported a record-breaking more than 23 million tons. About 15.8 million tons went to China, 23 percent more than in 2010.
As more states enact single stream recycling policies, which make things easier at the curb and generally increase recycling participation, the amount of “contaminated” recyclables is growing. Since China’s new laws make it much harder to off-load this waste without sorting or cleaning, states are left drowning in plastic that they’re not equipped to recycle.
“Green Fence has contributed to the 11% decline in export value of US plastic scrap in the first half of 2013, compared with the same period in 2012,” reports QZ.com. “China’s customs data reflect that too. It imported 20% less plastic scrap in Q2 than the same quarter of 2012, a value of $300 million less.” As a result, more toxic plastic is once again heading to the landfill.
The situation is dire, but it’s not without a potential silver lining. With China refusing to do our dirty work, some hope that Operation Green Fence will catalyze a U.S. recycling revolution that’s decades overdue.
“A wave of innovation and investment in recycling technology is needed to catalyse successful domestic recycling markets in the west, according to Mike Biddle, plastics recycling pioneer and founder of MBA Polymers,” The Guardian reports. “This could include more sophisticated handling and treatment techniques and more high-technology processing plants.”
Regardless of what, it’s clear that something has to be done. The Ashland Daily Tidings reports recycling centers in Oregon recently stopped accepting clear plastic “clamshell” containers, plastic hospital gowns and plastic bags. In Olympia, Washington, recycling centers are no longer accepting plastic bags, and farmers in California are trying to figure out what to do with the 50,000 to 75,000 tons of plastic they use each year.
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