|The recycling truck still comes to our neighborhood, but the Ann Arbor government is challenged by recycling|
problems that have emerged in the last few years. The cost for this service is becoming a real issue.
A Little HistoryRecycling began with earnest, responsible citizens who aspired to be good stewards of the environment. In Ann Arbor where I live a few dedicated people got a truck and began collecting recyclables in 1977. City dumps were just beginning to fill up and become a problem; some coastal cities still dumped garbage in the ocean, and recycling seemed a good start to making a cleaner world. The era of recycling began at this time.
Did recycling, which started so idealistically, become an enabler that allowed our society to become more and more dependent on excesses of packaging? During the era of recycling, our collective habits grew worse despite our personal efforts. China, which accepted much of this material for re-purposing, recently stopped processing our trash. Our own capacity to make new products from used plastics, paper and glass grew at first, but now has diminished. Landfills are at capacity. Plastics, especially, are a disastrous worldwide problem, polluting the oceans, poisoning fish, and killing wildlife in obscure parts of the planet. Just this month, a dead whale that washed up in the Philippines was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its gut.
|Ann Arbor allows individuals to bring in either trash or recycling that can't|
be picked up by the neighborhood garbage trucks. Here's a photo from a
long-ago trip to the dump.
In 1987 people throughout the USA had a garbage awakening when a barge loaded with New York City trash was denied access to garbage plants all along the East Coast. It went as as far as Mexico and Belize, but finally had to bring the garbage back to its starting point for incineration. The cost of dumping garbage was accelerating, while people became increasingly consciousness of resulting air and water pollution from mountains of rotting garbage and never-rotting plastic.
During the 1990s, recycling became a habit of virtually everyone in the US. Bottles, cans, yogurt tubs, cardboard boxes, juice cartons, more kinds of paper -- there were constantly new items that could be put in recycling. I think this made us all complacent. Fruit and vegetable packing plants, electronics manufacturers, and many others didn't have to worry that people would criticize them for using more and more plastic containers.
Economists refer to "externalities," that is, costs that society -- not manufacturers -- would be responsible for. Specifically, producers that wrapped every product with plastic packaging didn't have the least responsibility for disposing of the packaging. It wasn't their problem; it was an externality. Garbage disposal seemed kind of magical: both producers and consumers assumed that recycling took care of it. The foreign and domestic markets where we could sell the recyclable materials seemed able to expand indefinitely. Especially: exports of plastics between 1988 and 2016 amounted to 26.7 million tons. (source) It was too good to be true.
By the end of 2017, the destination for large quantities of collected recycling was China. Ships brought giant containers of manufactured goods to America from China; instead of returning empty the ships returned to China filled with recycling. Cheap Chinese labor could deal with it.
"Single stream recycling" allowed us to throw all our household recyclables together for someone else to deal with. Everyone assumed that ubiquitous recycle bins demonstrated that garbage problems were under control. No more idealism -- not even a bit of responsibility for our kitchen waste.
A problem for our time
|Protecting soft fruit with plastic packaging is the norm now.|
However, disposal of the packaging is a major issue.
|Vast quantities of plastic and cardboard are used at Costco.|
The corporate policy is to recycle unsaleable food and also
packaging. (Costco Policy Statement Here.)
According to NPR: "Recycling experts say it's a time of reckoning for their industry and that wealthy countries need to stop exporting to countries that can't handle it."
According to an article in Wired: "This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US."
Somehow the good intentions our society acted on in the 1980s have reached a limit. Allowing more and more products to be over-packaged and taking less individual responsibility for our trash was not sustainable. We're clearly in need of a new solution, both collective and personal. We need to exert the self-discipline and restraint that we lost when recycling became too easy.
|Plastic boxes of mandarin oranges at Trader Joe's. Is this reasonable and necessary packaging? I don't know.|
Reading About RecyclingA number of recent articles discuss the emerging crisis in recycling.
- The Atlantic, "Is This the End of Recycling?"
- The Washington Post, "A move by China puts U.S. small-town recycling programs in the dumps"
- The New York Times, "As Costs Skyrocket, More US Cities Stop Recycling"
- NPR, "China Has Refused To Recycle The West's Plastics. What Now?"
- NPR, "Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn't Want It?"
- Wired: "The World's Recycling is in Chaos. Here's What Has to Happen."
Coming next: for my once-a-month report titled "In My Kitchen," a more personal post about recycling.