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Global Recycling Is A Dumpster Fire. Literally

Bundled plastic goods, which were separated from paper and metal recyclable materials, are stacked and awaiting processing at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Bundled plastic goods, which were separated from paper and metal recyclable materials, are stacked and awaiting processing at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

China wouldn’t take the bulk of U.S. recycling anymore, so some cities and towns are taking a drastic step: They’re burning it.

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Jenna Jambeck, professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering. Co-creator of the Marine Debris Tracker app. ( @JambeckResearch)

David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America ( @SWANA), a nonprofit association made up of solid waste companies and municipalities. ( @biderman)

Tony Giunta, mayor of the town of Franklin, New Hampshire, and director of project development for the environmental group Nobis. ( @NobisGroup)

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: “ Is This the End of Recycling?” — “After decades of earnest public-information campaigns, Americans are finally recycling. Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country have bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you can be fined if inspectors discover that you haven’t recycled appropriately.

“But 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. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.”

WHYY: “ Burning plastic recyclables” — “China is no longer accepting America’s recyclable plastic and it’s having an effect on our recycling and trash procedures – some of which could be dire. In Chester, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest cities, a trash incinerator has begun to burn the excess plastic. There are concerns in the community that this could lead to health problems due to the incinerator’s emissions. Today, we’ll begin by talking about the environmental consequences of China’s decision to refuse America’s plastic with JENNA JAMBECK, environmental engineering professor at University of Georgia. Then, we’ll talk with Chester resident and activist ZULENE MAYFIELD and University of Pennsylvania public health expert MARILYN HOWARTH, about the plant in Chester and the concerns about burning plastic. We’ll also be joined by PAUL GILMAN, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer from Covanta, the company that operates the incinerator in Chester.”

Wired: “ The World’s Recycling Is in Chaos. Here’s What Has to Happen” — “It has been a year since China jammed the works of recycling programs around the world by essentially shutting down what had been the industry’s biggest market. China’s ‘National Sword’ policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem—and this one not of its own making.

“In the year since, China’s plastics imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed. While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass are less affected by the ban.

“Globally more plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable. In England, more than half-a-million more tons of plastics and other household garbage were burned last year. Australia’s recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the 1.3 million-ton stockpile of recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China.”

The Guardian: “ ‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports” — “The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins.

“But in the past three months, half of these recyclables have been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government.

“It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse.

“The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.”

Stefano Kotsonis produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.