Half of the trash recycled by Philadelphia residents goes straight to an incinerator, where it's converted to energy. The Memphis Airport might have recycling bins out and about, but anything put in them goes straight to the dump. A 2019 study found that every single state has, in some way, been forced to cut back on recycling programs due to the economic impracticality of the current system.
It's Suffering From Unfavorable Trade Laws
Wow, that's depressing. Why haven't we done anything to fix the steaming pile that is our recycling system? Well, until 2018, not a whole lot of this mattered. Historically, the United States sold most of its recycled scrap to China, since they have the factories and other facilities needed to process it into new products. It was a symbiotic, if not entirely equitable, relationship that existed for decades. But when trade laws changed and the process became exponentially more expensive, China decided they'd had enough of our crap. Literally.
Sirtravelalot/ShutterstockWe guess getting a million tons of discarded Sprite bottles sounds cooler than it is.
New restrictions put in place by the Chinese government said the maximum contamination rate on imported recyclables was .3 percent, a virtually unattainable number for a country whose current contamination rate is, again, a cool 25 percent. And China knows that. According to National Waste and Recycling Association director Steve Changaris, "They are kicking us out and trying to use their own wastes so they can develop their own domestic recycling capacity." In other words, they want to process and reuse their own country's trash. What a novel idea, really.
We should probably look into that, too. As it stands, our recycled goods are piling up as we look for a country willing to take them. In many cities, waste will very soon "have no place to go" unless significant, sweeping changes are made to our recycling system and funding is provided for local infrastructure. In the meantime, we can help by making damn sure anything that we put in a recycling bin really, truly belongs there, because given the current state of the system, it's infinitely better to be safe than sorry.