Recycling Crisis in California

Plot: You take time to “do the right thing” and recycle. You separate out your waste, roll your different carts out, they get picked up, and the trash goes to landfill while recycling gets turned into new groovy stuff hence “recycling”.
Plot Twist: It’s all ending up in the landfill anyway.

China announced early this year that they would no longer import California’s trash. They weren’t referring to the stuff in our black bin, but our recyclables. It’s dirty. It’s not done correctly. And they don’t want it. The thing is, some people don’t know how to keep their leftover spaghetti or diapers or knives or dead dogs (trust me, I’ve seen it all) out of the recycling bin. This equals “contamination” and it’s really fucking things up.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Aren’t there systems in place to clean it up? Well no, not really.  And those trash items that are incorrectly ending up in the blue bin can ruin all of the recyclables it comes in contact with. Imagine newspaper covered in pasta sauce from a half empty jar- not recyclable, duh! China is doing the right thing. So what does this mean for Californians?

Higher Trash Bills
Our recyclables are still getting picked up at the curb and sorted at the facility, its just that now they’re not getting sold. That means hundreds of thousands of tons of mixed paper, plastic, cardboard, and other recyclables are being stocked in a warehouse with a figurative for sale sign. But no one’s buying. Just a few other Southeast Asian countries can handle the influx, but this is a material management/economic problem that’s widespread across the entire state (and country). With more recycling coming in every week from your curb, there’s just not enough room. Lots of supply, no demand. Not only that,  the process still costs money – you’re basically getting charged for some of your recyclables to go to to the landfill. 

Impact on Nature
For all of the recyclables that can’t be sold to other countries, there may be no other choice than to send them to the local landfill. Not only does this make zero sense, it’s fucked up.  All that effort that went into recycling – the separate bin, the separate truck, the extra mileage, just to be in the same damn place as the garbage. Why is that bad? Landfills produce methane, which is 14 times more potent than carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (aka the air we breathe). These greenhouse gasses basically take a looooong time to leave our sphere. And they are magnets for heat. Heat that stays trapped around the Earth, leading to an overall warming effect on the planet (“global warming”). Burying recyclables in a landfill also means that more virgin material (new trees, fossil fuels, aluminum, etc.) will be needed to make our products. These production processes also cost money, resources, and greenhouse gas emissions.

So what’s the answer? You tell me (send me a message or comment below!). I have some ideas… 3 in fact.

The Solution(s)
It’s not China’s fault. Or the waste companies’. Or the facilities’. It’s ours for not separating our shit out correctly at the bin. It can’t be that hard, can it? It’s like you’ve let your dog take a dump on the sidewalk for years and finally your neighbor says – hey, are you gonna pick that up? And now you’re stepping in it too.

  1. (The expensive new facility option) We can become less reliant on countries like China to process our recyclables. We can build facilities in California that can take recyclables and turn them into new recycled content products.
  2. (The expensive upgrading option) We can pay a whole lot more for local recycling facilities to upgrade their sorting of our stuff, so that the material to be sold to China meets cleanliness requirements. Although technology is evolving, it’s pretty touch to get pepperoni stains out of a pizza box. Or how do you get peanut butter out of a plastic jar?
  3. (The behavior change, cheapest option) We can learn to do it correctly at the bin so neither #1 or #2 above (which will both be much more expensive) have to happen. It’s up to the person throwing things away, really, right? Not to mention the intrinsic benefits and curiosity that can come with learning about the things you use every day.

The positive effect that you can make is legendary. And the good news is, it can be pretty darn easy. In fact it can add real value to your life. Doesn’t it feel good to drop a few coins in a musicians guitar case? Or hold the door open for someone? That’s how it can feel to know that you’re not directly negatively impacting someone else’s life with your waste. Instead, live in balance. Or if that’s not enough, consider how much more your garbage bill could increase for the necessary improvements mentioned above (from pennies to dollars, monthly). Waste haulers across California have been requesting emergency rate increases on your bill so they can continue to collect, process, store, and/or sell (or landfill) the material.

We must ask ourselves – why is it okay for people that live across the planet have to live with our wastefulness? To work in squaller just because we can’t figure out how to properly separate our waste. Why is it okay for our trash to end up in the ocean where marine life is effected because it got sent to an Asian country that couldn’t do anything with it? Why aren’t we creating infrastructure in our state to handle our own waste? Because the people haven’t demanded it. The supply is there. It’s up to us what we do with it. Educating yourself is the first step – good on you for going there! If you’re hungry for more – read on here.

What are your thoughts? Share them below and as always, feel free to send me your questions. 

This 5-minute video does an excellent job of describing why recyclables across the state are stacking up.

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