As the materials used in plastic, paper and other recycling gets more complicated, so does the method to recycle it. The change from self-sorting to single stream has made the notion of “recycling” change as well. And now that China has stopped importing recycling, effects are being felt in multiple countries.

In the beginning of recycling, consumers would self sort their items into paper, plastic or aluminum bins for pickup by the government or selected hauler. As materials and inputs became numerous and complicated, recycling evolved into single stream, and then the end location became responsible for sorting it.

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The “end location” of recycling quickly became China and other developing countries. This was a cost efficient solution for the United States and its municipalities in charge of trash and recycling. The United States and Australia shipped thousands of tons to China for them to take care of.

And then China restricted imports of mixed paper and plastics. Citing health and environmental concerns for its citizens, China told the World Trade Organization in 2017 it would stop accepting plastics and wastepaper. In 2018, China announced they would stop accepting metal scraps. Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are now struggling with what to do with their recycling.

Cost is an enormous factor in recycling. Since China has closed the door on imports, towns around America are struggling to recycling. According to an article in the Atlantic, towns in New Hampshire and Virginia have seen the cost of recycling increase from $6/ton to $125 ton and 63%, respectively. Towns do not want to throw away or incinerate their waste but the cost is too high to recycle it.

Amy Brooks has been studying China’s import ban and recycling here. “Already, we’ve been seeing evidence in the past year of the accumulation of plastic waste in countries that are dependent on exporting. We’ve seen increased cost to consumers, closure of recycling facilities, and ultimately decreased plastic waste diversion,” she said.

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America continues to generate excessive amounts of waste and the amount increases each year. The cost of recycling has yet to shift to the consumer, so Americans continue to consume.

Technologies that use waste plastic continue to increase. Adidas released shoes made with plastic.  But reducing plastic at the source is still something Americans need to improve.

Read more One Green Planet recycling news. And read more about technologies helping to remove plastic from the waste stream.

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