One Thing We Can Do: Fix Recycling
Recycling in the United States is broken.
For many years, the US depended on recycling operations in China to take our waste. But this partnership came to an end in 2018, when China barred the import of recyclable materials. The result has been a waste crisis that has caused at dozens of municipalities to cancel curbside recycling programs, with others implementing budget cuts. Huge amounts of recyclables are now going to landfills. When the biggest export market is no longer willing to accept your materials, there’s an imbalance between supply and demand.
So, how can we solve this problem? Experts say that we would need to implement changes across the board. Legislators may need to pass laws requiring manufacturers to use more recyclable materials, companies would need to build much-needed recycling infrastructure and people would need to recycle properly. Cities can’t do all that. But they can play an important role.
For a possible model, consider San Francisco, which runs one of the most effective waste-management programs in the US. Through recycling and composting, the city manages to keep 80 percent of its waste out of landfills. That’s much higher than the American average. In 2017, the year before the Chinese ban, American cities were recycling and composting only about 35% of their waste. San Francisco’s program has been years in the making. In 2000, it introduced the “fantastic three” citywide curbside collection program with separate, color-coded bins for recyclables, compost and trash. In 2009, it passed a law requiring residents and businesses to separate their waste.
Inspectors monitor bins to ensure that residents sort their waste correctly and leave notices if materials are found in the wrong bin. They can impose fines if they find repeat offenders.
Other policies include bans on hard-to-recycle items including single-use plastic bags and polystyrene packaging and a law requiring food vendors to use compostable or recyclable food containers. San Francisco’s system is built on a very unusual partnership with a single waste company. That company, Recology, has had a monopoly on dealing with San Francisco’s waste for almost 90 years. No matter where you stand on issues like regulation and market competition, the Chinese ban means that the United States recycling system needs a major repair.
The ban is a challenge for recycling programs in the United States. But it also creates huge opportunities to invest in domestic infrastructure.