The Collapse of Recycling

According to the latest figures from a Pew Research poll, concerns over the environment are as important to the US public as is the economy:

As the research writers report:

“For the first time in Pew Research Center surveys dating back nearly two decades, nearly as many Americans say protecting the environment should be a top policy priority (64%) as say this about strengthening the economy (67%).  In addition, while a smaller share (52%) rates dealing with global climate change as a top priority, this is 14 percentage points higher than just three years ago. Today, similar shares rate climate change and improving the job situation (49%) as top policy priorities.”

However, just as public consciousness is rising, the everyday business of recycling is collapsing in North America.  The problem in large part is the failure of people to properly sort their recycling and the enormous human cost of re-sorting it at plants.  Axios recently visited a facility in Prince William County, Virginia, where the problems are manifest:

“It operates up to 22 hours a day to process about 550 tons of thrown out paper, plastic, aluminum and glass delivered there daily.  Despite the heavy machinery and increased automation involved, the process is still extremely dependent on humans.  On each shift, 28 “sorters” sift through the material as it rolls down a series of fast-moving conveyer belts. The workers spot and pull out non-recyclable trash from the stream so fast that they look like card dealers in a game of blackjack.  Contamination is a huge problem. People throw surprising things — Christmas trees, old carpet, shoes, diapers and even cinder blocks — into their recycling bins … [The facility] used to turn a healthy profit from processing recycled materials from a 50-mile radius. Now it’s having to pay vendors to truck material away, and is re-negotiating decades-old contracts with cities at higher rates — and explaining to consumers why they suddenly have to pay for curbside pick-up.”

Many cities are wondering whether the cost is worth it.  More than 60 cities in the States have cancelled their recycling programs completely, while others are restricting the materials they will accept.

” Alexandria, Virginia, and Katy, Texas, no longer collect glass. Baltimore County recently admitted it hasn’t recycled the glass it’s collected for the past 7 years. Hawaii County no longer accepts paper or plastic…

“If there’s no one in your local area to buy and recycle glass, you spend more fuel and carbon trucking it somewhere that does — and the benefit to the planet falls apart,” [waste manager Richard] Coupland said.”

Many of us have concerns with how we are treating our planet and wonder what just one person can do to help.  Recycling is one of the ways in which each can contribute and it is unfortunate to see the system falling apart.  I believe we need to tackle this problem at the other end, by making it vastly more expensive for producers to force packaging on us.  They need to be made to pay for the recycling and cleanup, not the consumer.

 

 

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