Getting people to recycle may have been one of the biggest marketing successes since the surgeon general’s warnings on cigarette packs. Everyone recycles. It’s a sign that you’re a good, responsible person and a steward of the environment. That may be why social media reacted with such horror when the truth emerged in 2018: recycling had never been a healthy, green, or desirable job and the fate of those recycled goods wasn’t as rosy as imagined. For years, it had been outsourced to poorer countries, most notably China, where millions of pieces of supposedly recyclable junk were being landfilled. Some of this was because of misapprehensions by consumers about what can be recycled in the first place, and some of it was because people generally don’t clean their garbage enough before trying to recycle it. But this process has never been the easy green bullet that consumers want.
Recycling And Its Problems
Misconceptions about the recycling process exacerbate the issues with an already problematic system. It’s not that recycling is bad – quite the opposite, it’s an important way to conserve natural resources. But without knowing its details and bugs, it’s impossible to improve the process – or even to decide whether relying on single-use, recyclable products is a good strategy in the first place.
There are myriad types of plastic. Many are recyclable, many are not. Even plastic that meets recycling requirements needs to be clean and, for the most part, whole. There’s no convenient way to identify if a scrap of unlabeled plastic is PET (polyethylene terephthalate which can be recycled) or PLA (polylactic acid which can be industrially composted), so if there’s any question, plastic will go into the trash. This invalidates the practice of aspirational recycling, in which consumers try to recycle all plastic regardless of label. Despite wishful thinking or good intentions, these pieces of unrecyclable plastic get sorted out and tossed, accumulating on the Earth forever, just as surely as if they’d been thrown on the street.
The sorting process for plastic is arduous and must be done by hand. This is one reason why plastic recycling has been outsourced to places where labor is cheap, especially China. Until recently, at least. Improper sorting practices have been cited as one reason that China refused U.S. recycling starting in 2018. While a stewing trade war may have had something to do with this, it seems fairly inevitable. Why pick through someone else’s greasy, moldy take-out containers all day, only to discover that the item in question needs to be landfilled or incinerated.
Filth can also disqualify a piece of recyclable plastic. While some food containers are recyclable, they need to be cleaned with soap and water, just like a dish. With the volumes involved in plastic recycling, there’s no time to wash each piece of junk. Plastic needs to be melted down with its own type. Food waste degrades the quality of the product, which is pelleted and sold back to manufacturers.
Poor nations generally take plastic recycling, and China is rapidly leaving that category. India now takes a great deal of U.S. recycling, but it seems unlikely that India will remain in poverty forever. In addition to all of the remaining problems with plastic, the same recycling trade problems could happen again.
Recovering raw materials from e-waste is a hazardous process. It requires soaking eligible parts in an acid bath, a noxious process that doesn’t recover all of the device’s materials. Dead computers are particularly noxious, containing lead and nickel. Since they’re mostly unrecyclable, the bulk volume of their components end up being burned. E-waste acceptors like Thailand, where environmental regulations are particularly lax, often burn old computers in open-air bonfires whose stench inundates the surrounding area.
The good news is that glass is, aside from the transportation and processing energy involved, theoretically lossless. When recycling centers receive these, they sort by color and power-wash the glass to remove labels. After that, 100% of the glass can be crushed, melted, and made into new glass…except if it comes to the sorting facility in pieces. Recycling centers will not sort broken glass.
Mining metal is so expensive and environmentally deleterious that there’s no question about recycling it. Even though metal recycling is enormously energy-intense, it’s nowhere near as bad for the planet as mining. Recycled metal is very valuable, to the extent that some companies pay well for scrap. Compared to plastic and even glass, metal gets royal treatment and processing facilities. It is tested for impurities, grouped, melted, and turned into bars that can be profitably sold.
Of all the types of recyclable materials, paper seems like the most innocuous. However, while it’s not as problematic as plastic, paper has its share of problems. For one thing, landfilled paper will eventually decay and, in the capped and airless space, produce methane. This vents into the atmosphere, where it wreaks havoc with the climate. Furthermore, if you think that your paper will definitely be recycled, think again. Paper plates and cups are not eligible for recycling due to a thin film of plastic that makes them water-resistant.
Paper that does get recycled is pulped, cleaned, mashed, squeezed, and pressed into new paper. This process uses a ton of water. It’s energy-intense and the by-products are sometimes just burned.
In 2018, many Americans experienced a shock when they discovered that recycling was not only an international business but that it could be affected by trade negotiations. Municipalities quickly accumulated more recycling than they could handle and scrambled for solutions. More often than not, these involved landfills and incinerators.
The problem isn’t isolated to China, nor even to this one trade war. Nobody wants to be the world’s maid – or its dumping ground. China, in particular, is leaving the economic strata where it’s worth the humiliation to process the developed world’s recycling. While India, Thailand, and other poorer nations are still accepting recycling, there’s a stigma attached, and they will likely do so only until they no longer have to.
But recycling has never been a great solution to environmental degradation. The energy involved in shipping stuff overseas and back again is itself prohibitive, and the process of recycling anything takes power that’s generally not derived from renewable sources. That’s not to say that recycling is a worse option than creating new disposable items from scratch and then landfilling them – far from it. Recycling has the potential to be a healthier process. But as it stands, it functions as an easy way to be environmentally conscious.
Technology is Stepping Up
Sending recycling to poor countries to be manually sorted is a short-term solution at best. Keeping recycling in the U.S. would be expensive, too – it’s difficult to find people who will do this kind of work in the first world. However, there’s a lot of potential for automation and AI to step up to the plate in this case. In 2017, a spate of news pieces about AI-enabled recycling suggested that smart robot arms could soon do what humans increasingly don’t want to: sort recyclables. This won’t solve a lot of the other issues with recycling, such as unrecyclable and unidentifiable plastics being mixed in with proper recycling. Then again, there may be an AI solution, if not for the existence of unrecyclable plastic, then at least for the problem of aspirational recycling. AI-improved recycling has even been floated as a good economic solution to the problem of resource loss.
Biodegradable plastic and plastic alternatives are also better options than recyclable stuff, especially if they’re compostable. Biodegradable plastic and plastic substitutes already exist in a commercial capacity; the late ‘00s saw a surge in biopolymer research, with research showing that there are many ways to generate better plastics. Since then, companies producing biodegradable plastic have begun to produce everything from grocery bags to flatware. Some of these plastics are made of corn starch, while others are derived from petrochemicals. While not all bioplastic is compostable, it’s a step in the right direction. Even so, the energy involved in creating essentially disposable items will continue to be an unrecoverable contribution to global warming. No matter how the recycling problem is solved, it seems clear that the behavior of overconsumption itself is a problem.
The expanding world of micro-repairs may be one solution to the e-waste problem that is currently manifesting overwhelmingly in Asian countries. The name of this game is to salvage tech instead of trashing it – even if the bin is the cheaper option. Entrepreneurs like Jessa Jones-Burdett are perfecting the art of soldering tiny connections based on the idea that a good device remains good even if a tiny piece of its motherboard needs to be re-soldered. While this strategy could help reduce the number of computers that land in the trash, the diagnostic and repair skills required to save a flushed iPhone or a burned-out laptop are significant. The repair costs associated with that level of expertise and patient labor could inspire users to go the cheap route and simply replace anyway. It’s possible to see this nascent strategy becoming important down the road, especially if resource shortages make existing, reparable hardware more valuable. Nonetheless, irreparable or dangerous-to-fix items, like batteries, monitors, and power sources, will all need to be re-engineered if e-waste is ever to become truly recyclable.
What You Can Do
That’s why there is a growing community of waste reduction enthusiasts, indicated by recent interest in minimalism and an abundance of books about zero-waste lifestyle choices. This philosophy maintains that the best possible solution to the many problems with recycling might be to simply reduce the use of all disposable items, from packaging to batteries. While the onus for this should fall primarily on the shoulders of the companies that endlessly produce single-use forks and throwaway wrapping paper, we, the consumers, will almost definitely have to be the ones to drive a greener demand. There’s also a vibrant non-consumer movement that focuses on a return to older strategies for reducing waste. These include using a mess kit instead of disposable flatware, relying on tool lending libraries instead of purchasing power equipment, and connecting with online swap and thrifting communities on social media. This high-tech leverage of low tech may itself become big business, as companies like Terracycle experiment with reusable containers and strategies. But for now, reducing recycling can mean buying from bulk groceries, cleaning with baking soda, and buying refurbished computing technology.
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