This question was not on the radar before China stopped taking our plastic trash. The Chinese ban has been copied by other countries and the US is left with an enormous supply of potential recyclable material. We are motivated to put our plastics in the recycling bin because we want to protect the environment, but whether that plastic bottle is recycled to become something else not only depends on us but on market changes and business cycles.

Cheap Chinese labor made the US recycling business profitable, because our recycling model did not have to face the logistical challenges of sorting the material. In our eagerness to recycle, we often do not wash the plastics before we throw them in the bin. Containers coated with foodstuffs like mayonnaise and yogurt cannot be recycled and have to be removed from the recycling stream and discarded as trash. The Chinese were doing this for us and since they stopped taking our recyclables, the costs to US companies in time, energy and labor have increased. When these become more than the cost of making products from new materials, profits disappear, along with the economic incentive to recycle. 

Most recycling and waste management in the US is contracted to private companies in partnership with local governments and small towns, and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. Most continue to operate, but the rising costs and falling profits have closed some recycling operations, stopped others from accepting all plastics, and caused a few places to suspend curbside pickup.

There is a small amount of good news. Markets are adapting and there appears to be investment in new processing plants with some money coming from—Guess who?—Chinese investors. But right now this is too little, too late to change the fact that only 9 percent or less of discarded plastic is being recycled, roughly 12 percent is burned and everything else is dumped in landfills or simply left to wash into rivers and oceans. The cost of dumping in landfills always wins over recycling.

Making recycling more attractive will, unfortunately require some government action and a lot of consumer pressure. One option is a tax on landfills, which some local governments already impose. Other options include regulations or tax breaks to phase out “hard to recycle” plastics, to promote the use of recycled products, and require packaging all food in compostable materials. In Norway, South Korea and Sweden, the government steps in directly with refundable deposits on plastic bottles, a national system of color-coded bins, and recycling stations. The European Parliament has approved a ban on single-use plastics, and several American cities and companies have taken similar actions. And many places around the world restrict plastic shopping bags.

We now recognize that the manufacture and use of plastic has made our lives easier and more convenient, but with plastic come large and often hidden consequences. Recognizing those consequences is step 1 in mitigating the damage. Step 2 is taking action, from the small ways we can eliminate plastics from our lives, to pressuring companies to change their plastic use, to advocating for environmentally sound government policy. It’s up to us. We broke it; now we must work to fix it.

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair