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is recycling in crisis?

Updated: May 18, 2020

A response from Recycling Connections on the recent articles and news regarding U.S. recycling

Reading the news today about recycling could reduce your consumer confidence in recycling streams and markets in the United States. Some are even calling it a “crisis.” This perception is largely driven from the announcement China made back in July 2017 setting severe restrictions of the importation of recyclables from other countries. Effective January 2018, China banned most paper and plastic waste imports and put severe restrictions setting a cap of 0.5% contaminants on cardboard and metal entering the country. This cap is not easily met in any market. In 2016, China imported 55% of the world’s recovered paper and cardboard and 51% of the world’s plastic scrap. It was estimated that 72% of the plastic scrap generated in the U.S. was being sent to China. That is a lot of material now building up waiting for potential markets to open on U.S. soil.

China’s decision is a call for renewed ingenuity, innovation, and re-investment in recycling infrastructure in the United States. Short-term investments are required, but promise a long-term economic gain, not to mention the immediate environmental benefits. Additionally, the opportunity for job creation is great in both rural and urban areas. Instead of perpetuating the mindset of “out of sight, out of mind” as a solution, we can innovate using new technologies to transform existing materials right here in our country into new products. Prior to World War II, the U.S. was known for making something out of anything; and nothing was “wasted.” This mentality is in all of us, and it is time to reconnect to our roots.

Despite China’s decision causing disruptions in recycling markets in the United States, it can hardly be called a “crisis.” The impact has been more serious on the West Coast. Here in the Midwest, prices for recyclables have decreased and in some cases zeroed out. Instead of sitting around and saying “the sky is falling and there is nothing I can do about it,” start asking yourself what you can do. This is not the first time recycling has faced hurdles. We can mobilize local governments, educate lawmakers, and do our part as consumers. Embrace the reduce, reuse, recycle mentality in that purposeful order. Look what you can reduce in your consumption. Is it possible to purchase more bulk items instead of individually wrapped goods? How about reusing your jars or plastic bags a few more times before you dispose of them? We all have a part in reducing the pressures seen on the current waste and recycling streams in our country. It is time we take responsibility for our stuff.

Industries and markets can do the same. They should be reducing packaging and production of single-use items. Support and invest in companies cutting waste and increasing efficiencies in more socially responsible and environmentally friendly ways.

Shipping recyclables to China was never going to be a long-term solution, and it sure wasn’t innovative. We have reached a point of real opportunity here that will promote local economic growth, innovation and technology, and will have more sustained and environmentally responsible solutions. It is true, the recycling industry is changing. Show your support and do your part to smooth the transition to a stronger, more profitable, responsible, and environmentally-sound industry.

Three things you can do:

  1. Become knowledgeable about your local collection streams and follow the guidelines. Don’t throw items in the recycling stream and “wish” them to be recycled. It costs your community time and money to sort these items.

  2. Speak to your representatives in support for growing our local infrastructure in recycling and responsible waste management and incentivize more socially and environmentally responsible market development.

  3. Reduce and Reuse more. Visit and “Like” us on Facebook for more tips and ideas.

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