The Failure of Recycling

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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Sounds easy so what is the failure of recycling?

Up until the 1970’s, Americans were much like the rest of the world. We didn’t consume much, and reused everything. Glass bottles went back to the store so they could be refilled with Soda or Beer. They weren’t tossed in a blue bag and smashed after they were weighed.

Cans were cleaned and recycled. The metal was sorted and new cans were made. When you had a can of spinach, it was easy, you rinsed it and added it to the metal pile in the garage.

Much of the world still reuses and recycles this way. So what changed here in the United States?

The answer is Plastic. Plastic was sold to us as a lighter, more environmentally aware solution to transporting liquids. Because it weighed less than glass, and gas prices skyrocketed, plastic could help keep the cost of your favorite soda and beer down.

Plastic could be recycled and reused many times they told us. But in the 1970s there weren’t any plastic recycling facilities so it just ended up in the dump. Soon styrofoam appeared on the scene. With much the same promise as plastic styrofoam use exploded.

As a kid in Los Angeles in the later 1970’s I remember oil on the beaches from the drilling rigs along with styrofoam hamburger boxes and cups all up and down the beaches. The little creek on my way to school where I would catch frogs eventually became littered with all the foam and plastic as well.

Because I wasn’t old enough to remember a time before the trash, I sort of lived with it. Thankfully my father didn’t.

Among my friends parents, my dad was by far the oldest. The only WWII veteran among the dads, he saw the world very differently. In WWII, people took extra pots and pans in for donations to build airplanes and ships to fight the war. Everyone sacrificed.

Having a 50 year old father when you are 9 isn’t uncommon in Los Angeles today, but in the late 70’s it was very different. My dad didn’t play the “keeping up with the Jonses” game very well. He and his brother were born in a two bedroom one bathroom house in Glendale. My grandfather was a dentist, and owned a car. They were considered “upper middle class”.

My friends today would call that “poor”.

My dad was much more aware of the changes brought about by plastic because he had lived so many years without it. The day supermarkets tried to go to plastic bags, he refused. He would say “cheaper is not better”.

At the same time there was a little company in Bentonville Arkansas that was teaching people how to spend less and get more. They did it by selling thinner and cheaper plastic items. Stuff that doesn’t last and ends up in landfills or floating down creeks.

In the 1980’s environmental protections laws shut down most of the metal recycling in the larger states like California, and the cost of shipping waste metal out of the state was more than the scrap was worth. Recycling almost died right there under President Reagans watch. Lucky for him, Richard Nixon had greased the skids to open up China.

When China’s cheap labor force became available to US retailers, the world tilted. Within a decade we went from shopping at corner hardware stores and locally owned super markets to shopping a super warehouse stores for everything.

Where does it make sense to shut down a plant in Conneticut that makes good tools and buy cheaper tools from halfway around the world? We did this so people could feel like they are living “better” because they have more stuff. This is pretty silly to me, but you can’t argue with the reality of the last 40 years of plastic and super stores.

More importantly, as american’s we bought everything we could. Houses started growing in size, and mini storage centers popped up to help us hold all this stuff that was making our lives “better”. The irony was we didn’t ship anything back to China. The shipping containers were going back empty. Eventually the Chinese needed more cheap metal, plastic and cardboard.

Soon the containers were being filled with all of our used cardboard, plastic and metal, and recycling hit its stride. Or so we thought.

Eventually the same environmental watch dog groups that got the refineries and smelters shut down in the US and Canada found their way to China. The pollution being created in China with our “recycling” was overwhelming so the Chinese did something. They effectively killed recycling.

The reality is that recycling was already dead, the Chinese companies were only recycling 30% from the beginning because we put our garbage in our recycle bins hoping it could be recycled.

RWTH Stainless Travel Cup
Get Yours and Save Plastic

Last year China raised the bar on what they considered “acceptable” for recycling. This meant 70% of what we were sending over there to get recycled would no longer be accepted. The “dirty” cardboard and plastics that were never recycled in China are no longer accepted. The items they are turning back now were burned or sent to landfills or dumped in the ocean before. They never were recycled.

Now 70% of our recycling is staying in the US and heading to landfills. Why? Because you can’t recycle a greasy pizza box or a plastic microwave dinner tray that has baked on macaroni. We need to do more Reduce – Reuse – and stop pretending all the recycling works.

The only way to stop the madness of the garbage is to stop the use of the things that become that garbage in the first place. Step one is to get a reusable cup and stop getting a paper cup with a plastic lid and straw every time you hit a fast food place.

Maybe someday we’ll do like the rest of the world and start refilling all those soda, beer and wine bottles instead of pretending that we recycle them. Didn’t we used to do that before big plastic and Jimmy Carters Oil Embargo? Plastic used less energy to ship and therefore was more environmentally friendly was the sales pitch.

One of the triggers that caused me to launch the #RWTH website was cleaning up plastic lids and straws on the beach. I started the #RWTH challenge with cups because that is the easiest for all of us to change.

Challenge number 2 is coming soon. Until then get a cup and show the world you are a #RWTH.

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