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Okay, We’re Recycling! But Is That Really Enough?

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The simplest way to describe America’s recycling system is — broken, and it has been for a long time. but recently the industry has become almost nonexistent. The recycling system is in this critical condition due to our careless treatment of the waste we produce. I am — by no means — an expert on the subject. However, it is something I am passionate about. I hope this article will provide a better insight on what the industry is going through right now, both on a local and national level.

I wrote this article with a number of sources (which I have included at the bottom of the article) and with the help of Vice President of Hamm Waste Services, Charlie Sedlock, who I interviewed to get information on the Hamm Material Recovery Facility in Lawrence.

A Global Perspective: China’s New Waste Policy

In the past, the U.S would send the majority of its recyclable waste — especially its plastic — to China for recycling. China would buy these recyclable materials from the U.S and recycle the plastic so that it could be used to make into other goods. Unfortunately, on Jan. 1, 2018, China enacted a new policy that banned the purchase of many of these materials.

Since China was essentially the biggest importer of recyclable material, this policy turned the recycling industry upside down. Recycling facilities went from selling their recycling to having to pay to get their materials recycled. In some cases, they aren’t even able to sell the recycling due to such low demand.

The Policy’s Impact on U.S. Recycling

Sadly, this ban just pushed the industry over edge. Even before, only 9% of materials put in your blue bin were actually being recycled. This is the result of many faults in a very inefficient system.

In America, we use a single sort system that makes it convenient for anyone to recycle since all you have to do is throw your waste into your blue bin and send it away to your recycling facility. However, there are many flaws in this, as it is now up to your facility to sort these material while it used to be China’s responsibility. We used to dump out dirty, unsorted recycling mixed with things that were recyclable for China to deal with.

Why China No Longer Wants Our Trash

A lot that was sent to China couldn’t be recycled due to contamination or overflow, so they would have to dump it into the landfill — or even worse sometimes, the ocean. Labor costs had become too high for China to sort through all the waste, and the pollution that these recycling facilities created became too much. It was no longer worth it to China to buy our waste. 

A Local Perspective: Recycling in Lawrence, KS

On a brighter note, some facilities have managed to keep on their feet despite these dark times in the recycling industry. The Lawrence recycling facility is fortunately one of the lucky ones. Lawrence’s waste collection sends the recycling off to a waste management company called Hamm. This company thoroughly sorts and cleans Lawrence’s along with other towns’ recycling at their Hamm Material Recovery Facility (MRF).

What is Unique About the local Hamm Material Recovery Facility

What allows the Hamm MRF to stay in business is that the company charges a reasonable fee that every household or company has to pay to get their recycling picked up, this fee also includes green waste and regular waste. Many facilities don’t charge, Hamm does in order to keep up with low demand and high prices for recycling.

They also took early action when China started slowing down on it’s collection of waste by finding alternative buyers before things went too downhill.

The Facility also pays special attention to making sure their recycling is very pure or clean, which is very important when finding end markets for recycling as many end markets have high standards when it comes to the purity of the recycling. The Hamm MRF recycles 95% of the waste it receives the other 5% is trash that ends up being delivered to the facility which is an incredibly higher ratio than most facilities. 

Practicing Conscientious Sustainability

My goal isn’t to convince you not to recycle, but to instead bring to light the reality of the recycling industry is in today. Hopefully, this insight will help you become more aware of your waste habits. There is definitely hope still for the industry, as we can see with the Hamm MRF, but it needs a lot of improvement.

We need to be more conscious of the way we recycle: to not throw our trash in with the recycling or clean out our cartons and bottles. We should be educating ourselves on what can and cannot be recycled according to our facilities. Although recycling is important, we should first think of how we can reduce the amount of waste we create and reuse the resources we already have. 

Additional Resources

I am by no means an expert on recycling, so if you would like to learn more on the topic here are some sources I used to write this article: