Bundles of recycling

The United States has a recycling problem, and we’re all partly to blame. “Me?” you might wonder. Yes, even you, the person who chooses paper over plastic at the grocery store. And you, who rolls your blue bin to the curb each week, stuffed with junk mail, pasta jars, and cans.

Despite our best intentions, Americans still don’t have recycling down to a science. Every day, well-meaning people discard carry-out containers lined with leftover noodles and pizza boxes saturated with grease into our blue bins. Some of us might even try to recycle old batteries or electronics. For decades, these mishaps didn’t pose too big of a problem. But now, thanks to China’s decision to enforce stricter recycling rules, we’re all about to pay the price. In fact, many materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in the U.S. already are.

China tightened its regulations on January 1 when it enacted the National Sword policy, which despite its comical-sounding name, is quite strict. The policy prohibits the import of 24 various types of solid waste, including some paper products and certain kinds of plastic, and is intended to signal to the world that China will no longer be a global dumping ground.

“Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” Chinese representatives wrote in a statement to the World Trade Organization. “This polluted China’s environment seriously. To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”

China took things a step further in March when it announced it would no longer accept waste containing 0.5% or more contaminants. But what exactly are contaminants, and how can we reduce them?

Simply put, contaminants are anything that hinders a clean recycling process. Ideally, all recycling would be appropriately sorted before it heads to one of China’s many processing plants. So, paper scraps and plastics would arrive separately. Unfortunately, the sorting process can be tedious and slow, and many MRFs are struggling to hit the 0.5% mark.

“In some cases, we run our lines slower. In some cases, we use technology in the equipment so it can process in a cleaner fashion,” Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Waste Management, told Waste Dive. “We have material that comes into our facilities that ranges from 15% to 25% contamination. To make a material that’s 0.5% is a difficult task.”

The issue isn’t solely confined to separating recyclable goods into compatible categories. Time and again Americans try to recycle non-recyclable products, such as soiled napkins, plastic-lined coffee cups, styrofoam, plastic bags, and household items like hoses. Even some wrappers are too hard to recycle because they’re made with multiple layers of film.

China’s new rules came as a shock to nations across the globe who rely on the country to collect millions of tons of recyclables each year. The decision especially impacts the U.S., which, alone, shipped 16 million tons of waste overseas in 2016. With nowhere to turn, MRFs across the country are now sending recyclable materials to American landfills. One such company, Republic, told The New York Times that it had already sent more than 2,000 tons of paper to landfills this year as a result of China’s hardline policy.

So, how can you help? For starters, we can all be more conscious of what we’re tossing in the recycling bin. Various counties have different recycling rules that make it difficult to give a clear-cut list of recycling do’s and don’ts. However, this list is a pretty safe place to start for those looking to get a general feel.

Additionally, opt for responsibly packaged products. If you want something that is recyclable, look for flexible packaging made out of single-source materials. Of course, don’t write off all non-recyclable goods just yet. Plenty of packaging on grocery store shelves is currently produced from recycled or compostable materials. For example, pouches, though not easily recyclable, actually have a less severe impact on the environment than glass. It may be hard to believe, but pouch production uses fewer natural resources and generates 45% less carbon dioxide emissions. They’re also easier to pack and transport, meaning it takes less fuel to get shipments to their destination.

Plus, preformed pouches help keep goods staying fresher for longer, reducing the number of times you have to head to the store. And, much like plastic bags, these pouches are often reusable. Fill up a used preformed bag with dried fruits or nuts for an easily transportable — and healthy — snack. Keep one in your drawer to hold miscellaneous household items (or to hide your sweets). Voila, you’ve recycled!

As a company, Label Technology is committed to sustainability both in the products we offer and how we run our business. We are constantly learning more about packaging’s place in a circular world. We are excited to let you know we have plans to tour a Materials Recovery Facility this fall to see first-hand how the process works. Do have some any recycling myths or questions you want us to ask the experts?  Let us know in the comments below!