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The World's Recycling Is in Chaos. Here's What Has to Happen (wired.com)
42 points by howard941 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

What’s the past year has shown us is that “we” never were recycling. We were just sending our garbage to China and they’ve had enough of it. The entire concept of postconsumer material is basically a marketing concept to appeal to a higher wage consumers.

The pessimism seems warranted in the case of plastics recycling. However, it's worth noting that the state of metal, paper and glass recycling is not so bleak.

I was under the impression that the only thing really being recycled was aluminium (and other metals, to some extent).

Typical plastic and paper waste is pretty dirty, due to misunderstanding of what can be recycled - anywhere from just thinking anything vaguely paper or plastic can be recycled to places where people apparently think recycling bins are just different colored trash bins (or just dont care). Contamination of otherwise recyclable materials by food is also an issue. Its also not worth much since the feedstocks for new paper and plastic is pretty cheap.

Glass is also fairly worthless, since it needs to be sorted by color to realistically be recycled. Mixed glass I believe is generally landfilled or "up-cycled" into some sort of crushed aggregate for various purposes.

Lots of cardboard and paper is recycled in the US. It works fine.

It's also the case that any metal a scrapyard will pay you for is economical to recycle. The majority of discarded steel is recycled.

They were recycling some of it, and then the rest was burned or dumped leading to all that plastic in the Pacific ocean.


I've since learnt "recycling" meant more on the line of "collect+transport+sort+ship it out of sight". It was a business like any other, when it was profitable everything chugged along just fine.. as soon as money stopped flowing things gets ugly.

I wonder if there's any opportunity in this. or is it basically wait for some other country to pick up the demand.

a dozen years ago, e-waste (electronics recycling) got a lot of attention, when the EU passed their version of the guidelines.. currently, with all things considered, its just an economic cost. There is no "opportunity" .. if that means make money.. many well-intentioned people (and some not well-intentioned) went broke attempting to make electronics recycling work. Plastics has all the burden and none of the value, compared to the electronics waste stream.

Then crank the cost until it is an opportunity. A failed half-measure means we need a whole measure, not to abandon the idea. We only have one world.

Recycling is very much labour intensive which is expensive in Europe. And you have to deal with all kinds of toxic stuff.

Single stream recycling is the majority style of municipal recycling here in the United States. It's popularity was along the lines of why we got Chip & Sign and not Chip & PIN EMV: Governments consider their citizens too uninformed and friction averse to sort their own recycling. They felt the consequence of that would be that the municipal recycling would become an underutilized money pit.

Unfortunately, those governments got the predictions right, but got the consequences wrong. The cost of uninformed citizens putting plastic grocery bags, gardening hoses, and all sorts of non-recyclable trash into the single stream is extremely costly. Single stream plants shut down several times a day to remove plastic film bags from their machinery, untangle hoses, and remove literal tons of tainted recyclable material because someone threw a full paint can in their recycling bin.

This is further exacerbated by many municipalities providing a recycling bin that is larger than your yard waste and trash bin. A city I lived in previously did this and many of my neighbors would just put their trash bags into the recycling bin because their trash bin was full.

As such, single stream recycling has been on the ropes since before China raised it's standards. Now it's in full on panic mode.

That said, I don't want to put up with a Japanese style rotation of trash days, special trash bags, and 50 page manuals on how to sort your trash and when to put it out either. Unfortunately, we're going to have to move away from single stream if we want to increase recycling efficiency, it seems.

If a person dumps a paint can into their recycling, that person is not going to clean and sort their waste into multi-stream recycling.

True, but I posit the opportunity cost of them not recycling is less than the current actual cost of tainted materials from single stream.

Pursuing Zero Waste has turned out to be a fun hobby for me. I started because I got tired of throwing things out all the time and then losing time to dealing with the trash.

I have a few questions [no particular order].

* How are you reducing your waste? Reducing input? Efficient internal usage? Efficient yet minimal output?

* What do you do with the waste you do still have [assuming any]? Re-purpose it, like a trash-to-treasure type deal?

* Do you consider your time dedicated to Zero Waste not "losing time to dealing with trash"?

I'm only playing around for now, Toyota-style. Also, our area lacks some infrastructure that others take for granted (e.g., bulk product stores with bring your own container) For example, we got a carbonater as an at-bat. This eliminated 3-4 1L seltzer bottles per week, plus some cola 20 oz.s (via Cube Cola). Will it be worth it? We'll see. But that's why it's a "fun hobby", i.e., past-time status. Other things are on deck like composting as much as possible. I'm already making bread regularly, but bread bags don't account for much trash, so that's really a preference thing at this point. I'm also experimenting with fast methods of making fruit spreads from frozen fruits. I like PBJ sandwiches with jam, so I was tossing 1-2 jam jars a week. The general idea is to learn truths about time/money costs and trade-offs via rapid experiments. If things go well, we gel the stuff that works into weekly workflows and enjoy less trash. We already reaped a minor victory. The trash company had some... business issues, and didn't pick up for a month. What we tossed still fit in the bin when they finally came back.

The answer is reducing consumption.

Trader Joe's at least has made an effort to cut down on the use of plastic packaging for their produce. So in this way, at least plastic consumption will be reduced at the consumer level, even if only for Trader Joe's shoppers. I always felt bad purchasing from them purely for the amount of packaging that was involved.


Here's basically the entire article: they will "no longer offer single-use plastic bags to customers, replace the plastic produce bags and Styrofoam packages with compostable alternatives, and avoid using compounds like BPA in packaging".

Trader Joes has always been semi-unique as a grocery store in that a reasonably high percentage of their produce comes as a multipack on a paper/stryofoam tray wrapped in plastic. It always struck me as wasteful as well.

Or producers of the goods that I purchase could pick a better way to deliver it to me. If I want product X then I am stuck with whatever way the company producing X decides to use. That they then try to shift the burden of proper disposal to me is the greatest red herring of our time.

> If I want product X then I am stuck with whatever way the company producing X decides to use

For most products, you have the choice of multiple companies Y that make/sell said product. Some might differentiate themselves on reducing their packaging. In other cases, you might be able to reduce your packaging impact by buying said product used or (god forbid) going without something you want but don't need.

Reduce -> Reuse -> Recycle.

In that order.

"But but GDP!" Will say the government economist.

I think it's past time we come up with a macro economic measure that doesn't depend on compounding year over year growth on a finite planet.

Locally, a community recycling center is in the process of closing down. This after having had its pickup and processing costs approach $100 a ton now. Since the "tipping fee" at the local dump is only about a third of that, guess where all of that formerly recyclable material is now headed? I expect that our much larger municipal recycling program will soon be taking a similar path.

Good. Every country should deal with their waste on their own, otherwise no one will ever do something to reduce it.

What are things software developers (which I presume most of HN is) can do to make more recycling possible?

EDIT: It does seem, reading from this, that the packaging of goods have gone too complex to be simply sorted by hand because the packaging itself can be contaminated by the paint etc.

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