In 2017, China announced a new policy titled “Operation National Sword,” where they banned the importation of foreign trash. Prior to this, the Chinese government would willingly take in used materials from other nations for recycling purposes. However, with the implementation of this new policy, the market of recyclables plummeted in many countries, including the United States. As a result, recycling in the United States began to face various issues, from overflowing recycling plants, loss of profit, and more.
An example of how the market of recyclables is failing can be seen in New York City. According to the city’s Department of Sanitation, the cost to collect recyclables in the fiscal year of 2019 was approximately $686 per ton (Husock, 2020). Although the city can profit from recycling paper, they typically pay over $686 per ton to dispose of non-paper materials. Compared to disposing of garbage in a landfill, which costs $126 per ton, the city could save millions. In fact, according to the data used in a 2017 waste characterization study, the potential savings would be approximately $340 million (Husock, 2020).
Sorting recyclables is also a major factor that contributes to the cost of recycling. Many people are not fully educated on what can and cannot be recycled. For instance, pizza boxes are made of cardboard, which is often viewed as recyclable. However, pizza boxes soaked in oil are generally not recyclable because the oils cannot be separated from the fibers of the cardboard paper. This contamination ultimately increases the costs of recycling as more money is required to sort and keep out contaminants. Kyle Cao, an avid recycler and an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, chose to stop their own recycling completely because of the risk of contamination.
Municipal recycling fails to be a sufficient alternative for waste management as its financial and environmental costs have been detrimental. However, Jonathan Emery, a materials science professor at Northwestern University, noted that “there have been some advances in biodegradable plastics which remove plastic from the wastestream.” This has the potential to improve the recycling process, but it may take years for it to be fully cost-effective. As it stands, it may be in our best interest to look for different alternatives to protect the environment.