We all try to our best to do our due diligence when it comes to the environment, especially in this current climate. We take shorter showers, turn the faucet off when we’re brushing our teeth, incorporate reusable water bottles and bags, and separate our trash from our recyclables. But do we really know where our garbage is going?
For decades, the United States had been exporting massive amounts of waste into China rather than create innovative initiatives to recycle “difficult” commodities within our own country. What does it mean to have a hard to recycle item? Simply put, this means that certain items cannot easily be sorted and/or broken down, making recycling nearly impossible due to the costs involved. The most difficult are various plastics, which happened to be the main commodity the U.S. was sending to China. In fact, a large percentage of the world’s plastic trash has been sent to China since the early 1990’s. However, in 2017 China passed the strictest regulation on waste trades to date, the National Sword policy. China had been the world’s largest importer of waste for decades prior to this policy, therefore creating significant shock to where this waste would now go.
The National Sword Policy began in January 2018 and essentially collapsed various recycling programs throughout the United States. China’s program not only imposes strict quality and contamination standards on recyclables, but also has banned certain materials altogether, setting an extraordinarily challenging standard for what they are willing to take. If China has suddenly rejected most commodities from the U.S., then where will our recycling go? A year and a half since the policy was launched across the U.S. and this question seems to have been generally unanswered. Municipalities scrambled to find new markets for their recycling needs, materials began piling up at facilities and several recycling programs had to close down. The quick fix answer for this overflowing issue seems to come down to only two options; either pay an extremely increased amount to recycle or send these items to landfill. Most are opting for landfill.
This decline of recycling, unfortunately, comes at a time when the U.S. is producing more waste than ever before. As a result, this is why recycling prices have plummeted and more materials are deemed as “non-recyclable”. Hopefully, as a result, more Americans will start to think about their buying habits and consider the trash they will create before throwing something away.