More and more cities in the United States are stopping recycling.

Since China stopped importing plastic and paper waste from other countries, recycling has become a big problem in the United States. As a result the waste that was previously destined for China is collected in the sorting centers of certain American cities and sometimes ends up incinerated.

At a time when young people are walking every week for the climate change issue, where zero waste trends are multiplying and when consumers attach more importance to consuming local, organic and seasonal products, recycling waste is a natural part of today’s eco-friendly landscape. Even if in the logic of the 5 Rs well known to environmentalists (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle), recycling does not come at the top of the solutions to avoid waste.

And yet oseveral large American cities have stopped recycling. Their way of disposing of their plastic and paper waste has to change as China, decided a year ago to stop importing foreign waste. The result: plastics and papers, however well sorted, collect in sorting centers and end up in landfills or incinerators. And the United States is not alone in losing this cheap way to sell the reuse of their waste for disposal. About 106 million tonnes, or 45% of the plastics that can be recycled worldwide, have been exported to China since data began to be collected in 1992 by the United Nations Comtrade Database. Since China closed its doors, US recycling plants have had to pay to dispose of their waste before they sorted and sold it.

Before the Chinese ban, the country bought already sorted foreign waste to clean, grind it and transform it into new raw materials. But little by little, China got tired of becoming the global dumping ground and recovering the contaminated waste from many countries in the world. Protecting the environment and the health of its people have also become more important issues for China. Beijing has closed its borders to paper and plastic and has set a contamination rate so low (0.5% of contaminated waste is tolerated) for metal and cardboard that American companies can no longer keep up. In the end all categories of waste should be rejected by 2020.

In American sorting centers however, the waste is sorted meticulously. Recyclable materials are separated from their non-recyclable waste and workers ensure that no foreign material gets mixed up with well-separated stacks of cardboard, paper and plastics. At the end of the chain, the pile of trash is compacted. Before it was sent to China, but today some waste is not picked up by anyone, even by paying for it. As a result in some factories, paper and plastic are no longer recycled and end up in landfill. Nobody wants to say it out loud because nobody likes to do it. But recycling costs are skyrocketing and it will become increasingly difficult to avoid incineration and landfills. The other importing countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and India do not have sufficient capacity to absorb the amount of waste that China manages to dispose of.

Some US cities no longer recycle

If some cities find solutions as much as they can to dispose of their waste like in Philadelphia: an incinerator converts waste into electrical energy, which makes people fear for air pollution, others find themselves in front of the unfortunate observation that they can do nothing. In Memphis the waste is still thrown in different containers, but all ends up in a landfill. In Deltona, Florida, the city even completely shut down its recycling program because of the overly high costs. Other cities have made the same decision: to continue recycling, taxes would have had to be raised. So too bad for recycling.

To solve the problem it would be necessary to raise awareness among citizens upstream of the consumption chain. The ultra-rapid expansion of single-use plastics and disposable packaging in the 1990s was certainly one of the causes that led to increased exports of American plastics. The sooner we accept the economic impossibility of recycling, the sooner we can make serious progress in solving the problem of plastic pollution.

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