We find it interesting, but not surprising, that every person in the United States uses more than 63 pounds of plastic materials a year. We thought it might be more than that, given the fact that just about everything we use that isn’t food contains plastic.
It is also interesting to note that almost every piece of plastic we use and discard is recyclable — yet about 80 percent of that plastic either goes to a local landfill, or is discarded along the roadside, on beaches or in the ocean.
Each fall there is a massive beach cleanup in California, and every year plastic is the king, accounting for roughly 80 percent of what volunteers pick up in the one-day event.
Another fact is that about 80 percent of what Americans throw in the trash each day is recyclable. It’s not just plastic discards. Every month Americans toss out enough glass bottles to fill the Empire State Building’s innards.
This paints a picture of Americans as profligate wasters, which as painful as it may sound, is true. And apparently it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
The United States is facing a recycling crisis. Mountains of paper, plastic and other recyclable materials have been piling up in warehouses since January, when the Chinese government announced it would stop accepting tons of recyclables from U.S. companies.
China made that decision for several very good reasons. First, much of the stuff being sent there was contaminated with food and other wastes. Second, China seeks more self-sufficiency, and had grown weary of taking America’s trash. China had needed the plastics in particular to support its mushrooming manufacturing sector, plastic products being a major component of that.
It was a relatively quiet, straight-forward rules change, but it caused a small tsunami in the U.S. recycling industry, the primary source of much of the materials previously sent to China, which had been processing about half the world’s recyclable materials.
California is one of the states most heavily impacted by China removing itself from the recycling market. This state has a growing mountain of recyclable trash with no place to go.
The inclination is to blame China, but the real culprits are us, consumers who use and discard, use and discard, while most of us really don’t give much thought to where our throwaways go.
The problem for U.S recyclers is that it’s not really much of a business, profit-wise. But that may change as the full effects of China closing its offshore recycle industry could force domestic recyclers to create a new business model. The federal government needs to get involved, because this is a problem that is big, is growing and could spin out of control.
Recycling programs peaked in the 1990s, when the city of Santa Maria launched a full-scale program. Since inception, the city has been able to divert about 60 percent of its waste away from the landfill.
Not all communities do that, and now, with China’s essentially exiting that market, lots of recyclable stuff is being hauled to landfills, which occupy a finite space in this country.
America needs a modern trash/recycling strategy, and we all need to think before we toss. We often don’t consider the consequences of throwing everything in a trash bin. There are state-sized islands of floating debris — mostly plastics — in our oceans, killing marine life and threatening our oceans.
We can start by being much smarter consumers, reusing materials when possible. We need to start somewhere.