Recent headlines have announced the death of recycling. Since China stopped accepting almost all of our recycling, the value of recyclable materials has plummeted, leading many cities to close their recycling operations.
Recycling has been criticized as an occult practice that has little real environmental impact, and a recent article casts the recycling industry as a new form of colonialism. Many of us are familiar with the statistic that only 9% of plastic in the United States actually get recycled, and the thought that people in Malaysia and Vietnam live amid mountains of our trash turns the stomach.
You might say that our problem is that the rules of what can and cannot be recycled are too confusing. Maybe different sources have given you conflicting information. For instance, according to the Carton Council, aseptic containers are recyclable in Utah, but according to Lance Allen, program director of Salt Lake City’s Waste and Recycling Division, no facilities in Utah actually recycle them.
And even if sources agree, the rules seem to change all the time. Can you recycle number 3 plastics? Styrofoam? Plastic bags? That your curbside recycling program accepted these materials last year, or even last month, does not mean they will today. The environmentally conscious citizen may feel adrift in a plastic-choked ocean of conflicting information.
So should you recycle? My answer is an unequivocal “Yes.”
The resources of our planet are limited, and if we plan to continue producing and consuming commodities, recycling will have to be a central feature of the economy in the coming decades. It has to be part of our plan as a species to avoid the future portrayed in the Pixar film WALL-E, as the children I’ve spoken to in my role as a recycling educator for Salt Lake County understand.
But we also need to find a way for recycling to be something than other than a religion.
For many of us, recycling is a mystical and moral practice. You drop an aluminum can in the blue bin rather than the trash can and it, as if by magic, becomes something else, and you are somehow redeemed for your complicity in poisoning the planet.
But recycling is about economics and logistics much more than it is about the fate of your immortal soul. Recycling is a $100-billion industry in the United States. It is complex and subject to market fluctuations. And different materials get recycled in different ways. In Utah, for instance, glass gets recycled in-state, and much of the cullet is sent to Nephi to become fiberglass insulation. In contrast, however, local MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) may send plastics 3 through 7 to be recycled or may send them to be burned as fuel, depending on the state of the market.
Recycling is not a ritual but a complex economic and mechanical process, and understanding it requires some patience for tedious details.
The best way to understand recycling is to visit a MRF and talk to the people who sort, bale and sell your recyclables. You will learn what no one-sheet recycling brochure can tell you: Recycling is an industry and recycling responsibly requires an understanding of the work people do to turn your empty soda cans and milk jugs and cardboard boxes into new things.
In Salt Lake County, Waste Management, Rocky Mountain Recycling, and Momentum Recycling offer tours to the public. Talk to them, learn what bothers them and what they wish the public understood. Tell your friends what you learned. If you’re dissatisfied with recycling, take a more active role in making it work.
Zak Breckenridge is a compost marketer and recycling specialist working for Salt Lake County.