After years of campaigning, Americans finally understand recycling. Now, much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.
For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. In 2020, China restricted the imports of paper, glass, and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country no longer have a market for their recycling. Municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.
America generated 262.4 million tons of waste in 2015, up 4.5% from 2010 and 60% from 1985. Americans have to understand all those toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles need to go somewhere, and creating this much waste has a price.
We need to rethink our waste. If we can somehow figure out how to better sort recycling, some U.S. markets for plastics and paper may emerge. But selling it domestically will still be harder than it would be in a place such as China, where a booming manufacturing sector has a constant demand for materials.
This is a challenge as it is still substantially cheaper for companies to manufacture using new materials than recycled ones.