I've been a die-hard recycler since the days when you had to rip the cellophane out of window envelopes. But I'm discouraged by recent reports that some (all?) of our recycling winds up in the landfill. Is anything still actually being recycled? —Penny H.
You don't have to be a tree-spiking eco-warrior to have heard about the seismic shift in the world trash market in 2018, when China decided to stop buying 99% of the recycling it used to take off our hands every year.
As we reported at the time ("You're Doing It Wrong," WW, June 6, 2018), America's recycling was so contaminated with dirty diapers, Ho Ho wrappers and nonrecyclable plastics that the Chinese government decided it wasn't worth its people's time to clean it up.
Which is a damned shame—until this happened, it seemed as if we were really getting something right for once.
Americans in general, and Portlanders in particular, were diverting ever-greater amounts of our trash into those blue bins. From there, it was whisked halfway around the world to be turned into socks, or fidget spinners, or singing wall-mounted fish or something. Anyway, it was gone, and it wasn't going into American landfills—score one for the planet!
Provided, of course, you define "the planet" as "the Western Hemisphere." Even in the good old days—before China told us where we could stick our trash—much of our discarded plastic wasn't actually getting recycled. Processors picked out the easy-to-recycle stuff; the rest went into Chinese landfills.
Or worse! Due to the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is not exactly the Sierra Club, plenty of this plastic waste wasn't even buried. It was just dumped in the open air and left to wash into rivers, or even dumped directly into the sea.
Considered in this light, the trash ban is probably a net plus for the environment. For China, it's a Sierra Club-like effort to tackle its domestic pollution problem. And for the rest of the world, it's a wake-up call—one that may yet inspire us to come up with a better solid waste policy than "out of sight, out of mind."
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