Know This

Reduce, Reuse, Maybe Recycle

How one country's policy has changed the global world in a matter of a year.

Standing with a plastic bottle in your hands, the choice between throwing it into a recycling versus landfill bin seems clear right? Maybe not anymore. As a result of the 2018 effective National Sword policy by China, recyclable materials within the United States are no longer going to recycling processors, but are being disposed of in landfills, incinerators, and are consequently ending up within the environment.

Before The Policy Implementation 

Before the policy, nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste went to China, but a recent shift in the Chinese government’s attempt to be more environmentally friendly has resulted in the ban of the importation of plastic, paper, and other materials of other nations. The problem centers around the soiled and contaminated nature of the materials being received which further exacerbates the environmental crisis within China.

In previous decades, recyclables were sorted into paper, bottles, and other compartments whereas today, there is a universal source of disposing waste. As a result, contamination levels from food and various forms of waste has increased, often rendering a number of materials unusable and non-recyclable. China must then undergo environmentally harmful processes to get rid of the material, resulting in an increased carbon production and other detrimental effects.

The country has rightfully chosen to reduce their own carbon footprint and environmental difficulties. Unfortunately, this now comes at the expense of others.

Current Conditions

Many nations have resulted to burning their recyclable materials or dumping them in landfills which up in water sources. The first method is extremely damaging to the atmosphere and the second has ill effects on the safety of drinking water, ecology, and ocean life in general.

In the the United States, the ban has resulted in an alarming buildup of recyclable material. Many cities have faced a halt in plastic acceptances by recycling operations as warehouses receive so much buildup it becomes a safety hazard.

According to a New York Times Article published in May 2018, numerous materials that come into recycling facilities contain anything from remnants of animal carcasses, Christmas light, and even bowling balls. 25% of all recycling taken by Waste Management is so contaminated, it simply goes to a landfill. It is no wonder why China refuses to continue being the world’s recycling dump.

Recycling

What Does This Mean?

Other U.S. cities have begun to look towards alternative markets such as Malaysia for recyclable handling. The Southeast Asian country has seen an influx of contaminated recycling waste in its facilities where women work long hours for only $10 a day dismantling the waste. The Los Angeles Times reports that Malaysia has replaced China as the U.S.’ primary destination for plastic waste. More than 192,000 metric tons were imported after the Chinese policy ban, and much of it has gone to landfills or has ended up incinerated.

The implications of this ban are monumental. For one, the transfer of waste materials to low-income countries promotes the general inequalities and structural injustices prominent today. Environmentally, the troubles are already visible, with greater usage of landfills occurring, ocean and air contamination, along with outright littering taking place in the numerous Western and Eastern countries.

However, this new policy calls for a greater understanding of environmentalism along the lines of recycling. For one, the United States and countries alike should look toward increasing and expanding their processing facilities while manufacturers should in turn look towards making products more environmentally friendly and thus recyclable.

Rather than changing the destination to where recyclable waste goes, perhaps it is necessary to change the culture which requires us to be consumed with the utilization of these materials altogether.

What We Can Do 

Should recycling still be encouraged if it most likely will end up in a landfill or a low income country where workers suffer at the expense of our own waste? It’s hard to say. There are still some operations which handle recyclable materials – not all hope is lost. But to increase the chances of these materials actually being recycled, make sure food products are thoroughly cleaned out so that waste and contamination is limited.

Even more so effective, the first steps before “recycle” are to reduce and reuse. If adherence to these steps are followed and made a priority, perhaps for the future, a crisis like this can be averted or substantially minimized.

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Isabelle is a senior at Cornell University minoring in English and...