Recycling centers are failing as landfill grows
Why recycling centers are struggling to keep up (and how you can help)
Since the 1970s, Americans have been diligently recycling in a bid to keep the planet turning. Despite these efforts, landfills are overflowing and recycling centers are closing down.
With climate change on the rise, recycling is increasingly important to our planet’s survival. Unfortunately, it’s also increasingly overlooked and misunderstood.
The truth behind recycling
There is no denying that recycling is an important part of living a sustainable life. However, we must remember that recycling is an industry that operates much like any other: it must be profitable or it won’t work.
Recycling centers run by taking your recycling, sorting it, cleaning it, and selling it on. So when recycling centers close, it’s almost always because it’s not making a profit. When the costs of running outweigh the overall profit, they cannot stay open.
In addition to the profitability of recycling centers, another issue is the sheer amount of recyclable material that the world produces. In 2017, 67 million tons of waste was recycled in the US alone. For reference, that’s the same weight as 183.5 Empire State Buildings. Now imagine that on a global scale.
In a bid to keep up with the massive amount of waste that’s recycled globally, a lot of countries (including the United States) started selling their recycling to China. China receives huge shipments of recycling and processes it for a fee. Unfortunately, this recycling has been dealt with under lax environmental controls. Most of it was dumped or processed in facilities with non-existent labor laws.
As imperfect as the system was, by shipping recycling to China, the rest of the world was left with a far smaller amount of recyclable material. However, this meant countries didn’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with their own recycling if this system ever changed…
And guess what? The system changed.
China cripples global recycling efforts
In 2018, China stopped importing the rest of the world’s recycling.
With this, countries can no longer send their waste to China. Because countries have been offloading to China for decades, the infrastructure isn’t in place to effectively sort the recycling at home. This means there is a huge amount of waste that cannot be recycled purely because there aren’t facilities to do it. This excess recycling is thrown into landfills.
Recycling centers are still shutting down
Even though there’s enough waste to keep US recycling centers running indefinitely, they are still shutting down at an unprecedented rate. On the surface, this sounds obscene, but it makes a lot of sense.
China has different requirements for recycling than the US so US consumers are used to recycling products that work for China. Not products that work for the US. In essence, China took the contaminated waste that was the least valuable. Now that China’s no longer accepting waste, recycling centers worldwide are having to take up the slack and deal with the waste that is, effectively, worthless.
Unfortunately, this has drastically increased the cost of running recycling centers (sorting and cleaning in particular), making them far less profitable than they were before. This loss of profit is forcing them to shut down. As a result, the recycling they would have processed is instead of going to landfill.
“With climate change on the rise, recycling is increasingly important to our planet’s survival. Unfortunately, it’s also increasingly overlooked and misunderstood.”
Getting it right
Thankfully, all hope is not lost.
On a global scale, it’s a good thing that China is no longer dealing with the world’s waste. While it’s having a drastic effect on the environment in the short-term, it will change for the better in the long term.
This change has prompted governments around the world to look at how they deal with waste products and to work on finding solutions to the issues they had previously been allowed to ignore. On a local level, the loss of recycling centers is hitting people hard. By losing these centers, we’re not just contributing massively to landfill, but people are losing their jobs.
To combat this, it’s important to ensure you only recycle what can be recycled. By reducing the amount of contaminated waste we throw into the recycling, we can help recycling centers remain profitable and, importantly, open.
If you’re not sure what the recycling requirements are in your area, a quick Google search is all you need to start making a huge impact in your neighborhood and the world.
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
- The 30 easiest ways to reduce your plastic use | Science 101
Ease the load on recycling centers by reducing your plastic use.
- Becoming plastic people: a survey on microplastics consumption | Science 101
Microplastics are the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the water you drink.