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Plastic Recycling Is Getting a Much Needed Overhaul in the US

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger May 29, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States and other Western countries began shipping recyclable plastic waste to China. China had the infrastructure, and the labor, to recycle the plastic and other cheap scrap recyclables like paper. But in January of 2018, the country began restricting the imports of these recyclables.

In the months following the announcement, US recycling was thrown into chaos. What to do with all this scrap? Our recycling processing facilities had neither the proper equipment, the proper space, nor the proper staff to handle it all. Much went to landfills, and some was shipped to other foreign buyers, including Malaysia and Vietnam. On top of that, it seemed like every time we heard about the issue, the news was negative. Some cities like Minneapolis even stopped accepting many types of plastic for recycling at all, while others eliminated long-standing curbside recycling programs.

This is where the story takes a sharp U-turn. It’s not all doom and gloom out there on the recycling front. Nonprofits, grocery chains, and even big-pocketed investors are taking this opportunity to (finally) overhaul plastic recycling in the US.

“It’s a very good moment for recycling in the United States,” Neil Seldman, a co-founder of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told the Associated Press in May 2019. His organization works with cities to improve their recycling operation, largely by developing solutions to help local businesses, community leaders, and other active players in a particular region to invest in and support recycling programs.

With both foreign and domestic investment, new large-scale plastic recycling plants are coming online in Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana. On a smaller scale, grocery store chains like Kroger, the nation’s largest, and other regular purveyors of single-use plastic bags continue to increase recycling drop-off locations and are even announcing plans to eliminate plastic bags entirely. Plastic Film Recycling, a nonprofit organization run by the American Chemistry Council, hosts a list of drop-off locations for plastic film and some single-use plastics around the US and Canada, helping individuals and businesses find proper places to recycle plastics that otherwise would end up in a landfill.

Much work remains ahead to get plastic recycling to where it needs to be. But the issue is striking similar to how the US has made progress in reducing fossil fuel use. When governments can’t or won’t solve the problem, forward-thinking minds have been stepping in to fill the gap. For example, nonprofit solar co-ops across the country are rallying residential neighborhoods toward renewable energy, and major auto manufacturers are backing start-up companies that use EV technology, such as Ford’s $500 million investment in Rivian trucks in 2019.

While reducing and eventually eliminating single-use plastics is the ultimate goal, keeping them in use longer (many types of plastic can be upcycled 10 times before degrading) is key to protecting our oceans, waterways, and even landfills.

Speaking of forward-thinking minds, two very straightforward action tasks scream to us from this information. Before you attempt to recycle plastic, or anything else, know what your local recycling operation can take and how it needs it sorted. This is usually as easy as Googling the name of your town plus “recycling information.” A search for “San Diego recycling information,” as an example, returns this handy page from the city government.

When you order something packaged, like a piece of furniture that you must assemble or even something smaller like a pair of ski boots or a new travel backpack, take note of what it’s wrapped in when it arrives. It’s nearly impossible to buy anything online these days without being asked for feedback. This is your time to shine. Did the product come in recyclable or biodegradable packaging?

Let the company know that you’re stoked on that and will keep it in mind when shopping in the future. Did it come wrapped in layers of thick plastic now sprawled across your floor, and soon to be buried in a landfill? Voice your opinion about that as well. You opened up your wallet, and therefore, you have the power.

More progress from forward-thinking minds:

  • Around the world, companies are using drones to plant massive amounts of trees. With the ability to plant hundreds or thousands of trees in the time it takes a person to plant one, these drones could be a major player in global reforestation efforts.
  • Wind energy is having a moment in Europe. Denmark announced plans to build two massive wind-energy islands, following news last week of England and Scotland constructing big offshore wind farms.
  • The European Union has announced that its COVID-19 recovery plan will not alter its climate initiatives, according to The Guardian.
  • Twenty-one African countries are building a “great green wall” of trees. By 2030, the wall could cover nearly 5,000 miles and aims to help the continent’s degraded landscape recoup and recover. The documentary about the initiative has debuted at film festivals this year and is ramping up public awareness of the project.

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