What Are The Solutions For A Broken Recycling System?

Blue Recycling Bin

One of my prime rules for sustainable living and conscious consumption is to first use up what you have before buying anything new. It’s about reducing as much waste as possible and then to dispose of it properly, ideally recycled and then reused again. Even if you are the most committed recycler and you put everything neat, clean, and tidy in your recycling bin, chances are high that most of it ends up in a landfill after all. According to a new study of the Environmental Working Group less than 10% actually gets recycled.

What’s the Problem?

Largely, up until 2018, China handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. That was terminated by China’s “National Sword” policy, enacted in January 2018, with banning the import of most plastics and other materials. As a result dozens of cities across the United States suspended or weakened their recycling programs.

Furthermore, too many things end up in the recycling bin that don’t belong there. For example, plastic bags can’t be recycled in most curbside recycling programs and notoriously mess up recycling machines. Also, a lot of consumers don’t care enough or simply don’t know what belongs in the blue bin. If you actually do care and recycle dutifully, another issue you might not know about is that any product can display the triangular “chasing arrows” recycling symbol, even if it isn’t recyclable. It’s false advertising by companies and therefore, myriads of non-recyclable waste are thrown in the recycling bin each year, obstructing the recycling system.

Last week California proceeded toward becoming the first state to change that by passing a bill by the state’s assembly, which would ban companies from using the arrows symbol unless they can prove the material is in fact recycled in most California communities and is used (in a circular way) to make new products.

The measure is part of a growing effort across the country to fix a recycling system that has been broken. It is expected to clear the State Senate this week and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Other states started to also implement programs to curb the struggling and collapsing recycling system in the US.

The New York Times writes:

This summer, Maine and Oregon passed laws overhauling their states’ recycling systems by requiring corporations to pay for the cost of recycling their packaging. In Oregon, the law included plans to establish a task force that would evaluate “misleading or confusing claims” related to recycling. Legislation is pending in New York that would, among other things, ban products from displaying misleading claims.

Basically, these programs work by charging producers a fee based on the amount of packaging they put on the market and other factors. Audited and contracted by the state, those fees are usually paid into a producer responsibility organization and reimburse municipal governments for their recycling operations.

Laws like this work very well in almost all European Union member states, five Canadian provinces, Japan and South Korea. They have seen a big success in their recycling rates. Even in the face of a collapse in the global recycling market caused in part by China’s “National Sword” policy with banning the import of most plastics and other materials, their collection programs remain resilient.

These extended producer responsibility programs, or E.P.R. are important to curb the oil industries efforts to make more plastic. More than $200 billion have been spent on chemical and plastic manufacturing plants in the United States because of concern for declining demand as the world moves toward electric cars, renewable energies and away from fossil fuels. Enormous amounts of plastic waste are exported to Africa and South Asia. Most likely they end up in dumps, waterways and oceans, breaking down into microplastics that harm wildlife.

Take Away

As mentioned in the beginning of this blogpost, my main rule for sustainable living and conscious consumption is to first use up what I have before buying anything new to reduce the waste I produce. Despite all the recycling dilemma, I continue with my best efforts to recycle as much as I can and/or buy plastic alternatives whenever possible.

Recently I was faced with the decision of whether to buy a new electric toothbrush made from bamboo or keep using my Philips Sonicare that is still working properly after a few years. I used a regular bamboo toothbrush for a while because I wanted to avoid buying replaceable plastic brush heads. I didn’t like it. I prefer an electric toothbrush because my teeth just feel cleaner, and I can get better into corners. 🙁

I bought something on AmazonSmile (a percentage of your sale goes to a chosen charity, mine is the Environmental Working Group) the other day and the algorithm suggested eco-friendly brush heads that are compatible with Philips Sonicare. How perfect! They are made by a female founded company called Plus Ultra based in Los Angeles, California. The brush heads are made from cornstarch, which is a sustainable material that is durable and biodegradable. They are also BPA free.

Plus Ultra Eco Friendly Brush Heads

As long as my Sonicare still works, I’ll keep using Plus Ultra. 🙂

*Ad Vitam is not affiliated with any of the brands mentioned in this post.

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