Recycle: The Only Cycle That Ends

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Anna Damratoski, Sophie Naasz

Reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a childhood jingle plastered on the walls of countless elementary schools all across the country. Don’t you remember teachers and parents overzealously encouraging us, bribing us to place even the smallest scraps of paper into those bright blue bins? That was the ultimate aspiration: recycle, it’s not hard to do, you can reduce pollution and help the world too! 

But did you know that every time you drag that blue bin out to the corner of the street, only 34% of its contents are actually recycled? Probably not. How has this happened? How have we let these companies take the cycle out of recycle? It all started in January 2018 when China enacted its National Sword policy banning 24 materials from being recycled and lowering the impurity percentage to 0.5%. To put that into perspective, although contamination varies throughout the US, some recyclables can reach an impurity rate of 25%.  

Prior to this policy, the US exported 40% of its recycling to China. With that option no longer available, we have arrived at a crisis: what do we do with all of this excess recycling? In some municipalities, recycling trucks have become trash trucks, rudely bringing the contents of those bright blue bins straight to the landfill. Other more creative places have resorted to incinerating the waste and turning it into energy that can be sold to the electrical grid. This idea seems fine and dandy but here is the catch: non-profit Zero Waste Europe discovered that even the newest incinerator models can emit harmful pollutants. At this point, recycling companies are trying to choose the lesser (and cheaper) of the two evils: add recycling to the ever-growing masses of trash or release toxins into the atmosphere. 

Seeing that we are now living in an environmentalist’s worst nightmare, the question is, what can we do to wake up from this terrible slumber? If you are involved in legislation, then I suggest you take a peek at the Recover Act and become its most enthusiastic promoter. If not, here are two tips. First, next time a bright yellow notice about what cannot be recycled lands on your doorstep, do not ignore it. Placing one wrong item in your blue bin can result in the company bringing all of it to a landfill. Second, do not be lazy. The recycling bin is not a dishwasher; it cannot magically remove all of those hard-to-reach food bits from that black bean can or yogurt container. China can send back entire batches of recycling because of a few contaminating food scraps. Now it’s time for you to do your part and help keep the cycle in recycle.