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“Most people have no idea where exactly that dirty can or paper bowl they recycle ends up,” writes VOX ATL’s Liora Yustein.

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Recycling Has Collapsed, What Do We Do?

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In this era of eco-sensitivity, a common phrase reigns supreme: reduce, reuse, and recycle. The first two are the simpler of the trio, with the goal being to not invest more in harmful materials such as plastics that will inevitably end up in overseas landfills and cripple biodiversity. The latter is more complex. 

Most people have no idea where exactly that dirty can or paper bowl they recycle ends up. In Atlanta, organizations such as the Recycling Partnership have made efforts to increase awareness and education around proper recycling. The Recycling Partnership’s ‘Feet on the Street’ program tags recycling rates and levels of contamination to inform households about how they could improve their recycling habits. The multi-year project, which held its first pilot in 2017 and spanned from 2019 to 2021 found that Atlanta had a 41% contamination rate in 2017, meaning practically all recycled waste went to landfills. 

Feet on the Street was partially motivated by the National Sword program in China — the center of the recycling trade – which in 2017 sought to address recycling contamination on a global scale. The program dramatically tightened standards for materials China would accept into its facilities, rendering 99.5% of previously recycled waste unacceptable, including plastics, paper, cardboard, and glass items. The ripple effects of China’s ban impacted all other countries with large recycling operations, such as Japan where “incinerators began working at full capacity” in order to process contaminated waste no longer accepted by China, as Eric Kawabata, general manager for Asia-Pacific with TerraCycle, a US-based recycling company, told the Financial Times in 2018. Japan wasn’t alone, with Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia also rising up in the ranks of recyclers in the aftermath of the Sword Policy – and receiving more plastic than they could process. 

Great Ideas and Wasted Opportunities

Recycling in the U.S. hit its first boom during World War II, when civilians donated nylons, tin cans, and cooking oil to be converted into armor and fuel for the soldiers overseas. However, it wouldn’t be until the early 1960s that recycling became a beacon of hope and a solution to the overflowing landfills. Attention turned toward publicly funded landfills and curbside recycling, which lifted the burden on civilians to seek out private recycling centers, making it more likely for the average citizen to recycle. But enforcement is difficult because it requires participation from individual households. 

The origin of the waste overwhelming Asian countries is, of course, in the US and other developed nations, where most of the consumption takes place. Few regulations exist to prevent developed nations from using poorer countries as de-facto landfills. The destination countries must manage the problem at the border: in 2019, Malaysia returned 4,120 tons of plastic waste to thirteen countries. In the same year, after 2,700 tons of mislabeled Canadian waste were exported to the Philippines, the Philippine President had to resort towards threats until Canada finally reclaimed it, according to the Council of Foreign Affairs.

In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency released a plan to address the need for an updated recycling system, including creating a larger market for recycled materials and ensuring the quality of the recycled material. While the plan addresses both actions to be done by households and large corporations, most of the blame cannot be placed on  individuals. Even the very best efforts of civilians worldwide couldn’t manage the 400 million tons of plastic waste being produced each year according to the World Economic Forum, 85% of which finds its place in landfills. Governments should focus their efforts on reducing  the waste produced by factories and by corporations like Amazon or Walmart – which use many non renewable plastics – and put restrictions on the amount of unsustainable materials they can run through. In the US, the EPA’s plan distinguishes the need for environmental reforms at large companies, while also analyzing consumer habits.

The latest reports from the EPA show that 294.2 million tons of municipal waste were collected in the US during 2018, adding up to almost five pounds per person per day –a half-pound rise from 2017. And at least 50% of all waste collected ends up in landfills, which produce harmful toxins that are major contributors to the acceleration of global warming.

What Can Teens Do About It? 

For most civilians—teens especially—it is natural to feel hopeless in situations where there seems like there is nothing productive that can be done. However, there are practical changes individuals and organizations can make to reduce personal carbon footprint and work towards a better-operating recycling system. Big names such as the local Atlanta Hawks say they are reducing their excessive waste. In 2022, State Farm Arena diverted over 2.5 million pounds of waste to be composted or recycled, it announced this year.  

For teens, a simple change in mindset and active effort could cause ripples in the community. Controlling your consumption and managing the quality of your recycling bins are easy, personal actions that anybody can participate in. Do you really need another pair of polyester leggings? And although it may seem like a waste of time, how much damage would it cause to your schedule to ensure that the materials you toss carelessly into the recycling bin are actually recyclables? 

A fun, environmentally friendly activity anybody can participate in, but is perfect for the younger generation, is upcycling old clothes that you have grown out of or have left popular fashion. Single-use plastic bottles and cups that litter the ocean with pounds of trash can be replaced by reusable water bottles and cups that are more environmentally friendly and are perfect for an afternoon Starbucks run. Recently, there has been growth in the sustainable market, with disposable lunch boxes, straws, bags, and even soap all having a reusable counterpart. 

Recycling on a local scale needs attention and nurturing that can no longer be left solely up to the government but must be taken into the hands of the community and the people to strive towards a less contaminated life. Tighter regulations and standards for corporations are crucial for effecting the overall success of recycling programs. But as a community, the people and governments of Atlanta, the US, and the entire world must begin taking this problem of waste into their own hands. 

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