The US recycling system is garbage


For nearly three decades your recycling bin contained a dirty secret: Half the plastic and much of the paper you put into it did not go to your local recycling center. Instead, it was stuffed onto giant container ships and sold to China.

Around 1992, US cities and trash companies started offshoring their most contaminated, least valuable “recyclables” to a China that was desperate for raw materials. There, the dirty bales of mixed paper and plastic were processed under the laxest of environmental controls. Much of it was simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution. Meanwhile, America’s once-robust capability to sort, clean, and recycle its own waste deteriorated. Why invest in expensive technology and labor when the mess could easily be bundled off to China?

Then in 2018, as part of a domestic crackdown on pollution, China banned imports of dirty foreign garbage. In the United States, the move was depicted almost as an act of aggression. (It didn’t help that the Chinese name for the crackdown translated as National Sword.) Massive amounts of poor-quality recyclables began piling up at US ports and warehouses. Cities and towns started hiking trash-collection fees or curtailing recycling programs, and headlines asserted the “death of recycling” and a “recycling crisis.”

But a funny thing happened on recycling’s road to the graveyard. China’s decision to stop serving as the world’s trash compactor forced a long-overdue day of reckoning—and sparked a movement to fix a dysfunctional industry. “The whole crisis narrative has been wrong,” says Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “China didn’t break recycling. It has given us the opportunity to begin investing in the infrastructure we need in order to do it better.”

“That’s the silver lining in National Sword,” adds David Allaway, a senior policy analyst for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality and the coauthor of a surprising new study that demonstrates the ecological downsides of pursuing recycling at any cost (see “When Recycling Isn’t Worth It”). “China finally is doing the responsible thing, forcing the recycling industry to rebuild its ability to sort properly and to focus on quality as much as it previously focused on quantity.”

Paradoxically, Allaway says, part of America’s trash problem arose from people trying to recycle too much. Well-meaning “aspirational” recyclers routinely confuse theoretical recyclability with actual recycling. While plastic straws, grocery bags, eating utensils, yogurt containers, and takeout food clamshells are all theoretically recyclable, they are almost never recycled. Instead, they jam machinery and lower the value of the profitably recyclable materials they are mixed with, like aluminum cans and clean paper. In addition, Americans are notorious for putting pretty much anything into recycling bins, from dirty diapers to lawn furniture, partly out of ignorance and partly because China gave us a decades-long pass on making distinctions.

“We need to recycle better and recycle smarter,” Allaway says, “which means recycling only when the positive environmental impacts outweigh the negative.”