Changes to the global recycling market
Many of you may have seen news stories over the paste six months or so detailing China's refusal to accepts certain types of recyclables and crackdown on the amount of contamination in bales of recyclables making their way to the country. Since its inception, recycling has depended upon international markets to extend the life of the materials we use in our everyday lives. In recent years, an increasing amount of that recycling has been sent to China. That is changing.
China's National Sword Policy, which has sent markets for waste paper and plastic into a tailspin, has forced material recovery facilities (MRFs) around the country to slow down sorting lines to improve the quality of bales and even send some material to the landfill. As a result, communities are reevaluating recycling programs and the materials they accept, as well addressing key issues that have plagued the recycling industry for decades. The main issue is that many of us are not putting the right items into our recycling bin.
For years, the U.S. has been able to pass off its contamination problem to countries like China that have been willing to accept and process dirty loads of recycling. Increasing labor costs and higher environmental standards, as well as the fact that Chinese consumers are producing a greater amount of their own waste, has meant that China is less willing to accept the world's recycling.
Impacts to Flagstaff
While no changes have been announced as to what Flagstaff residents can throw in their recycling bin, these recent events have underscored the need to reflect on why we recycle to begin with.
Why do we recycle?
Recycling our discards provides many benefits when it works properly. By replacing the need for raw materials to be extracted, it reduces the demand on natural resources, lowers the energy needed to create the products we use in our everyday lives, and even avoids disposing of items in a landfill. Sometimes it even makes us feel good inside. But, when we don't recycle properly, we begin to negate these benefits.
When we recycle items that don't belong in the recycling bin, it makes it more difficult to sort out the material that has a strong market and can actually be recycled.
At the moment, Flagstaff's infrastructure is being challenged to provide high-quality bales of material for the recycling market. Part of this is due to the fact that markets for certain materials, including some types of plastic, have always been fickle. While many of the markets for individual materials are likely to improve as processing capacity grows domestically and around the world, the current uncertainty provides a great opportunity to evaluate the list of acceptable items and ensure that only materials with strong markets are being added into the recycling market.
Flagstaff will also have to make sure that future infrastructure can produce high-quality recycling bales through improved sorting technology that many communities are already utilizing.
What can Consumers do?
Make sure to check the list of acceptable items. No changes have been made to the list yet, but we always encourage you to check back regularly, as markets can change and items can be added or removed. If you're unsure about an item, it's best to throw it in the trash (or better yet, give us a call at 928-213-2158).
Reduce and reuse. Fix and repair.
In light of these challenges, a great way to reduce the impact of our materials consumption is to simply consume less. In fact, by reducing the amount of stuff we purchase and choosing to reuse we can actually achieve greater environmental outcomes than by making sure that what we consume is recycled.
Master Recyclers will play an important role as Flagstaff deals with these challenges. Please continue to check back for news on potential changes to local recycling system and help us spread the message to the rest of Flagstaff.
These changes present an opportunity
While local infrastructure and planning will be challenged in the near term, this recent uncertainty provides a great opportunity to reflect on why we recycle and how to do it properly. It also allows us to communicate the importance of reducing and reusing, as well as develop a long-term plan for improving local processing systems to ensure that what we throw in our recycling bins can be recycled in the future.