Recycling Programs Are Struggling These Days. But There Could Be A Solution

Modern packaging often confuses people about what’s recyclable. And China has stricter policies about what material it will accept for recycling. But landfill “mining” could be the way forward.

By Sol ChaseMay 1, 2019 11:38 am,

In many parts of Texas, it has become a lot easier to recycle in recent years. Got a plastic bottle or an aluminum can? Just throw them into the blue bin instead of the gray one. But problems inside and outside of Texas have led to issues with our recycling system.

For one thing, not everything can go into the blue bin. Lots of things aren’t recyclable, so let’s sort out some of those misconceptions first.

“There’s coat hangers, there are hoses. Pantyhose actually do[es] wonders on equipment to get them jammed up. Plastic bags are a big problem for us. We call those type of things ‘tanglers’ in the industry,” says Richard McHale, the interim director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city of Austin’s trash and recycling agency.

McHale says about 19% of the material it collects in curbside recycling is unusable. And while recycling programs have existed in Texas and elsewhere for years, he says nowadays, people seem to be trying to recycle more things that should, instead, go to the landfill.

“A lot of it is due to packaging and what people think may be recyclable,” McHale says. “Also, a lot of wishful recycling: people tend to think, if I put it in there, maybe it’ll get recycled.”

Instead of just hoping for the best when tossing something into the recycle bin, McHale suggests people check out the list of accepted recyclables on their city government’s website. Every item that can’t be properly recycled has to be removed by a line worker, which takes time and money. Some incorrect items, such as lithium batteries, can also be dangerous. McHale says Republic Services, one of Austin’s largest waste management companies, reports an average of three fires a week due to batteries being mixed in with recyclables. All of these things make it hard for the city to meet its goal of zero waste by 2040.

“When we say ‘zero waste’ we realize it’s really impossible to divert everything, because some materials you just can’t recycle. Our goal is really 90% of the waste stream,” McHale says. 

But diversion in Austin has stagnated; it’s hovered at about 40% for the past few years. McHale says reducing consumption could help get to the root of the problem, but there are also other factors – even global ones – to consider.

Until last year, China bought a majority of the United States’ recycled material. But a new Chinese policy in early 2018 required that all material be less than 0.5% contaminated, a near impossibility. In the past year, it’s only gotten worse.

“China not only didn’t [reverse] the policy; in fact, they even added more items in the list that they’re not going to take from any other part of the world, not only USA,” says Sahadat Hossain who directs the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability at the University of Texas at Arlington. “So it seems China is not going to change their 0.5% contamination rule at all.”

He says the U.S., and Texas specifically, are in a waste management crisis brought on by overconsumption.

“So, think about the consequence: One: you have a lot of plastic; you used to send it to China, now you cannot send. If you cannot make a local market, if you cannot create a local market, they’re going back to our landfill. And many of the major metropolitan cities, they’re running out of landfill space,” Hossain says.

The future of recycling seems grim, but Hossain says many European countries have found a way to recycle despite the change in Chinese policy.

“You design the landfill in a way that’s called ‘perpetual landfill,'” Hossain says. “Let’s say a landfill life is 20 years, and you divide it into four different cells: each cell will fill up in five years. So you start with cell 1, cell 2, cell 3 – when you’re filling cell 4, you’re mining cell 1. When cell 4 is complete, cell 1 is ready to go.”

That’s right, landfill “mining.” Hossain says after several years of degradation, almost 90% of material in a landfill becomes recyclable or compostable. Digging up our old trash could solve the space issue. But there’s still the question of who’s going to buy the recycled material. Hossain says now it’s up to local governments, small businesses and entrepreneurs to create a market for this material if China won’t take it.