Dodie Johnston: Recycling reveries
I’ve been living in a comfy dream world about recycling and maybe you have, too.
I thought that if I rinsed out my bottles and cartons, washed plastic take-out food containers, checked for the “chasing arrows” symbol, kept paper and cardboard clean and dry, it would be swept off by the Waste Management trucks to some magical realm, then transformed easily into other useful things.
But, yikes! That dream has ended, the bubble burst!
My recycling fantasy (and maybe yours) is just that, and really has been for years. If you want to know the true story instead of the fairy tale, read on. I can’t even promise you the whole story because it is very complex, hard to research, and evolving.
For years most of what we put into our recycling bins was bailed, loaded onto huge gas-guzzling container ships, and sent to Asia, primarily China. American garbage was so rich in reusable raw materials that it could be sold for third world construction and developing industries. The rest was dumped into local rivers that carried it to the ocean to join one of the ever-growing “Garbage Patches” that now festoon the Pacific Ocean, mingling with the plankton and seaweed that feed the sea creatures who live there.
But China no longer needs our garbage. Furthermore, due to their burgeoning economy, they have a trash problem of their own and are taking steps to deal with it. Trouble is, during this time, recycling capabilities in the U.S. have become outdated, unprofitable, or ceased to exist altogether. Industry leaders knew recycling to be a complicated, high-energy, expensive process. Why go to the trouble of converting it when some other country would actually buy the stuff?
Then, in 2018, the Chinese banned all imports of foreign garbage. Other Asian countries quickly became overwhelmed. America became a trashy exporter without a market. The U.S. garbage biz was unprepared, its recycling infrastructure outdated and inadequate. RePlanet, the biggest provider of recycling centers in California just closed 289 sites in August. Nobody’s buying; nobody’s building clean, efficient recycling plants. It can be done; it IS being done, but not in California.
So what’s a householder to do? First of all, get real about the Three Rs: Reuse, Reduce and Recycle. Only the first two are viable options until manufactures are required to ensure their packaging is recyclable and until we develop the sites and machinery to process clean, high-quality plastics and paper.
I had a heck of a time getting info about Nevada County recycling. The corporate offices of WM gave me one story; local sources gave another. Under “Recycling Pick Up,” the WM website mentions only four things to be recycled: clean empty bottles and cans, dry cardboard and paper. No glossy paper or coated paper containers, no foam or plastic to-go containers, no packaging materials or plastic bags. The chasing arrow insignia “doesn’t necessarily indicate recyclability,” the website warned.
An employee at our transfer station told me that everything in the mix-use curbside bins is sent to a huge sorting facility in Sacramento that separates clean from contaminated, recyclables from not.
“Nice!” I said. “Then where does it go?” Oh … well … actually nowhere now, he told me. It’s being baled and saved in hopes a market for it will develop later.
Daily, mountains of our garbage are trucked away, then buried near Anderson, Calif. and Lovelock, Nev. Now our recycling is being held indefinitely in hopes someone will buy it. Beginning to sound more like a nightmare, than a dream, isn’t it?
In the meantime, our best hope is to recommit to the two remaining R’s: Reduce and Reuse. Talk to your favorite take-out joint about getting compostable containers. Bring your own cup to the coffee shop. Buy in bulk whenever possible. Buy less. Wait … could we do that? Is it un-American?
There are many informative websites online — visit them. Encourage our leaders to learn more about waste-to-energy plants. Call the transfer station; request very specific, current, local info. If you are an optimist and an activist, demand industry leaders begin investing in the infrastructure we need to do the recycling job right.
This is the true story as I understand it. It is a long story and this is only a tiny part of it. Please chime in with what you know, spread the word to others, and complain loudly until things change.
Meanwhile, practice the Two R’s of recycling: Reuse and Reduce. Then dream of sweeter things.
Dodie Johnston has lived in Nevada County since 1976. She was a school psychologist for many years, is author of “How Was China?” and wants “Waste not, want not” engraved on her tombstone.
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