Have you ever purchased a car before? Was the interior full of dirt, food crumbs and the debris of life from the previous owner? How about your apartment or home? Was the outside or floors covered in mud? The answer is likely, “No”. When we buy cars, clothes, food or whatever – there is a general expectation that the item we purchase will be in good condition free of excess debris or dirt. When most people are presented the same idea regarding the plastic and paper packages of waste from their food purchases, for some reason the idea doesn’t correlate. However, this is a very real and basic reason that China set stringent conditions for contaminants in the plastic and other recycling that we create for processing overseas.
Reporting on a statement made to the World Trade Orginization in 2017 China, Waste 360 reported that US plastics are to dirty for use.
“To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted. Protection of human health or safety; Protection of animal or plant life or health; Protection of the environment“
These changes are causing the waste and recycling industries to look internally at the processes need to re imprint the culture. in order to create a cultural shift in our understanding. For now, the reality is that some states are telling consumers, this is garbage and you cannot put it in the recycling indicating that the inefficiency of our current system. In this January 2017 USA today article one single steam recycling faculty operator describes the problem-
“…all day every day there are plastic shopping bags (recyclable at a grocery store but not from a household), chunks of Styrofoam, diapers, syringes, food-contaminated containers … a nearly endless litany of things that residents throw into their curbside recycling carts figuring they are or ought to be recyclable.”
National waste management companies (USA) like Waste Management, Allied Waste as well as government and non government entities throughout the world are struggling with this problem as our populations continue to grow.
The problem in the US stems from the way beverage companies who oppose bottle bills or programs that ‘pay people to recycle’. According to the Container Recycling Institute, between 1989 and 1994, 14 billion was spent by the beverage industry to fight these laws. This battle, fought by the beverage industry to deflect responsibility for the packaging materials they push into the consumption stream. The fact that only 1/5 of the United States has a system of returning beverage containers in a deposit program says a lot about our basic cultural practices in considering the waste we generate.
In most industries, just like in recycling, the are basic standards. Those who are in the industry, including the scrap metal collectors who pick up appliances and metals off the roadsides and trash piles; understand that the “cleaner” the metals are, the more valuable they are. In my post, “Recycling household items- the fan, is it really worth it” I cover more on separating metals for increased value. The cleanliness standards for plastic being set by recycling giant China, are too stringent to meet our cumulative cultural understanding. This means that when bales of recycling arrive in China, they can be returned to the US for being to dirty.
In the United States there is not a standardized national set of guidelines that are being taught as the proper process to organize and dispose of the ‘ things of life’. Talking about our how we manage or process the ‘trash’ isn’t an exciting topic for most people. This problem is one that organizations large and small alike struggle with. How do I process this packaging so that its ready for the next step, and engage in the conversation so that company or community wide, people are working within the same standards. Considering that for most people around the world, this isn’t a conversation that has ever occurred. The interaction between our consumption and its processing is currently, just beginning. Because of these standards, as well as other struggles in ‘wishful recycling’ practices; Waste Management is among the entities driving the conversation. ‘Wishful recycling’ is putting things in the recycling that cannot actually be recycled via single stream. These include plastic bags, batteries, dirty plastic, Styrofoam (by community) and soiled food packages. Check out the video and hey, let me know your thoughts.