A little over a year and a half ago my roommates
and I set up a compost bin outside our apartment for food scraps. We were trying to divert as much waste as
we could from the landfill. And when we nestled that black compost roller
in the corner of our yard, we thought we were well on our way to eco-conscious bliss. Our system was pretty simple. All of our food waste went into the compost,
all our plastics and glass got thrown into the recycling bin, and everything else got
sent to the trash. It was great, except for one big problem. We quickly discovered that the building’s
recycling dumpster also happened to be our trash bin. Our landlord, and even the waste management
company, claimed that we could commingle our trash and recycling in the same dumpster and
everything would get sorted at a factory, which seemed very fishy. So it got me thinking about how much of recycling
actually gets recycled, and really when it comes down to it, does recycling even lower
a person’s environmental impact? After some online investigation, I discovered
that the recycling journey of something like a plastic bottle is actually pretty long. It begins with your last sip of water and
might end halfway across the world in a recycling plant in China. And there are numerous steps in that process
where the plastic bottle can easily go from recycling to trash. So let’s start at the beginning. In the city of Chicago (which is where I live),
recycling collectors come around every other week to pick up the blue recycling bins, and
they’ll often lift the lid and take a peek inside. If there is anything out of the ordinary,
like a soccer ball or even a bunch of plastic shopping bags, both of which can’t be recycled
in Chicago, they send the whole bin to the landfill. That means just one big contaminant can divert
a whole lot of recyclables, including our brave plastic bottle, to the landfill. If, however, the bottle makes it past that
first hurdle, it makes its way to a sorting center, used heavily in single-stream recycling
programs like Chicago’s. While single-stream programs often make it
easier and more convenient to recycle at home, it means more contaminants and more work on
the processing end. As Susan Collins of the Container Recycling
Institute confirms, “what single-stream wins in volume, it sacrifices in quality.” And in the Chicago area, a private company
called Waste Management does the majority of this processing. They sort 24,000 tons of recycled materials
every month. At the facility, a combination of high tech
machines and human eyes sort through every piece of recycling–pulling out what doesn’t
belong, like plastics caked in food waste or even more plastic bags, all of which gets
sent to, you guessed it, the landfill. According to the area director of recycling
for Waste Management, 18-20%– and sometimes as high as 30%– of recycled materials are
contaminated and get sent to the trash, which means that even in the processing phase, every
year approximately 31,000 tons of materials put in the recycling bins around Chicago end
up getting thrown out. But if that plastic bottle we’re following
makes its way through this gauntlet of machines, it’ll eventually get bundled, compressed
and shipped to the highest bidder. And in many cases, the highest bidder is a
facility overseas. The US exports one-third of its recycling
and almost half of that goes to China. But in 2018, Chinese recycling facilities
started to refuse 24 kinds of our waste. This now means that the fate of our recycling
is unclear. In some cases, like in Portland, Oregon, the
bids for recyclable materials have become so low that recycling facilities have turned
away avid recyclers, with some customers reporting that companies are telling them to throw all
their recyclables in the trash. Understanding this relatively complex process
is important because when we recycle a plastic bottle, its environmental impact isn’t neutralized. Recycling still has fossil fuel emissions
tied to. Yes, the environmental costs associated with
recycling are less than with extracting new materials. But that doesn’t mean that our current waste
management system is the best it can be. Plastic bottles can only be recycled a maximum
of 7-9 times, but materials will still last for 450 years. Eventually, the plastic bottle you used will
end up in a landfill. Ultimately, recycling is a beneficial patch
for a problem we’ve already created, but it allows for our true unsustainable problem
of overconsumption to continue on. While it is important for companies and governments
to create less environmentally intensive packaging systems and waste systems, it would be foolish
to wait around for that kind of systemic change. So, recycling has to go hand in hand with
a more serious interrogation of our consumption habits. While movements like Zero Waste might be a
little too extreme for some, they do good work at getting to the root of the problem. For the average consumer, Heidi Bischof’s
concept of Conscious Waste might provide better guidance. She focuses in on plastics, but her five R’s
mantra can be applicable in many situations: First “Reflect” on our current habits,
then “Refuse” what we don’t need, “Reduce” what we do need, “Reuse what we can’t
refuse or reduce and lastly “Rethink” recycling. In a sense, that recycling bin we so often
turn to should be approached as a last resort.