Monday, July 15, 2013

Why won't you guys take my rigid plastics anymore?

A primer on China's "green fence" and reducing consumption.

Q: Why won't recyclers take rigid plastics anymore?
A: No market for the material. All recycling decisions are based on whether or not there is a market for the material. If you, as a recycling processor, don't have anyone buying the stuff from you, you'll quickly be swimming in it. Ewww...

Q: Why isn't there a market anymore?
A: China's Green Fence Policy. In February, China erected a virtual "Green Fence" and became more stringent with enforcing regulations governing contamination in bales of recycling.

Q: How long will this last?
A: Hard to say. Some are speculating at least until the end of the year, others are saying the changes are here to stay.

Q: So, then, what do I do with this stuff?
A: Put it in the garbage. Until new recycling markets open up, these materials are "true trash." (See above about recycling decisions being based on markets.) All of the answers here are for our market (Clark County, WA) and I would urge you to always check with your own local hauler for questions about recycling. 

Q: But, isn't it bad for the planet to throw stuff in landfills?
A: Not really. Landfills, while not perfect, are the best disposal option we have at our, well, disposal (pardon the pun) at this time, given how much waste we create.

Q: I don't love these answers.
A: We don't either. But, without a market for these materials, these are the best, truthful answers we have for you at this point in time.

Q: What can I do about this? Who has control over these decisions?
A: Honestly, the best, most expedient thing you can do is to REDUCE your consumption. Everyone likes to focus on recycling (we've been taught to) but recycling, even at its best, is not a silver bullet for all our waste woes. You, as a consumer, have immediate control over one thing: how much (and what) you buy. Need to take cookies to a meeting and don't want to have to throw away the clamshell? Make them yourself or buy them in bulk from your local bakery. 
Clamshell packaging does not
have a strong market currently.
Beyond reducing consumption, an investment in domestic markets is also, arguably, needed. Perhaps writing letters to local and/or federal decision makers, urging them to invest in green jobs would be a worthwhile use of your time? The other way to help is to vote with your dollars-make sure that what you do buy has post-consumer recycled content. If you are buying stuff made from recycled content, you're signaling to the markets that the cost and effort of recycling will be worth it. (But, again-only what you need!) Finally, Thurston County (our neighbors to the north) have a great page all about what can be done (in general) about waste.

Q: Any silver linings to all of this?
A: Absolutely! 

  1. There is evidence that when recycling is readily available, consumption increases. So, when we find ourselves in a situation like this one, it's reasonable to extrapolate that consumption may decrease and that's certainly a good thing. 
  2. The end of readily available markets that weren't too stringent about contamination may mean that domestic recycling infrastructure investment (that doesn't get to take shortcuts) becomes more economically viable. 
  3. This article addresses some of the pros/cons of Operation Green Fence for domestic recyclers.
Bottom line: if you aren't buying the stuff, you don't have to worry about the end-of-life of the stuff. 


  1. It's been hard for me to swallow that I am contributing to the landfill waste more now that I can't recycle clamshells...(I had tons from Costco, and Trader Joes)...but happy to report, that I just buy produce from Fred Meyers or Chucks that are not in plastic containers. Not that hard...Give feedback to your grocers (Costco and Tjs) - they can adapt just like we all can:-)

    1. Anon,

      Thank you for your comment. Thank you, also, for your commitment to sustainable consumption. You're correct-buying produce (and not bagging produce which comes with it's own container-which I'm sure you're doing) can really help REDUCE the packaging load.

      As I said in my post, the current recycling situation isn't great, but if it forces consumers (such as you and me) to rethink our buying habits, then I can't bring myself to be all that upset about it.

  2. I Loved it !! I think that it is very important to raise awareness about what is reducing ,we are very focused on recycle, or better talk of recycling, and ,forgetting that lessen the consumption and production of garbage does not have to worry about your final destination and the nature, surely, thanks.


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