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Shutting the Door on Recycling: A National Dilemma

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In an effort to improve their own environmental policies, China warned us in July 2017 that they would be making sweeping environmental policy changes and as of January 2018 would no longer be accepting foreign recycling material. Other countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia have followed suit. Not having either invested in adequate domestic recycling programs or incentivized US corporations to accept such materials has left the USA in a recycling crisis of overwhelming proportions. The reasons behind this quandary are both convoluted and multifaceted but for simplicity the problem can be reduced to two points.

The first problem with our recycling was one of cleanliness. All items that go into a recycling can have to be squeaky clean. A certain type of plastic (as perspex sheets cut to size) might be recyclable but must be removed and sent to the landfill if it is smeared with peanut butter or guacamole. Dirty recyclables lead to rotten smells, mold and contamination of other clean products. To make matters worse, recycling material often contained matter that frankly did not belong there such as batteries, coiled wires, styrofoam and used diapers. Further, such soiled items had to be extracted from legitimate ones and such thankless work became increasingly expensive, driving up the cost of recycling. With the terse Chinese decree of January 1st came an epic problem: What to do with the colossal piles of recycling debris that no longer had any interested buyers?

Cleanliness was not the only problem. The recycling programs of the USA have been under the impression that all plastic (numbered 1-7 in the little triangle at the base of most plastic tubs) was recyclable. All of this material was sent to China. However, China only had the capacity to recycle plastics numbered 1 or 2. Those products numbered 3-7 could not be renewed. Thus for the greater part of the past two decades plastic 3-7 have ended up in China’s landfill. The take home message is that for the moment plastics 3-7 must be put in the garbage. For those of us with well intentioned hearts, this can be a bitter pill to swallow: Just because you have the desire to recycle an item does not necessarily mean it can be recycled. Lids are a further issue. They might be made of recyclable material, but their flat, smooth shape allows them to slip into the paper stream during the sorting process, often resulting in contamination that requires the entire lot of paper be sent to the landfill. Thus lids must be removed from recycle bins.

The problem naturally extends to the local level. Medford’s recycling material needs to be shipped about 350 miles to processing centers. At these facilities inappropriate material is removed and legitimate recyclables must be sorted. Prior to January 1st, over 60% of the sorted glass, paper, metal, cardboard and plastic was shipped to international buyers such as China. There are still some local facilities that can accept products such as cardboard and paper; however their capacity is finite while our supply is massive. With the colossal backlog in recyclable material -given the local and international limitations- vast quantities of product are merely sitting in storage warehouses throughout the state waiting on a resolution to an inscrutable problem. With storage spaces already maxed out, if markets do not become available, it is possible a voluminous amount of recyclables will be transported to the landfill.

There are many ways to reverse this unpleasant predicament. Here are some thoughts that came to me as I did research for this article. First, clean your recycling thoroughly; food does not belong in the bin. Second, the burden on the system can be reduced if everyone reuses rather than recycles. We can all be more conscious of the numbers on our plastic bottles and avoid purchasing anything made in plastic #3-7. If you do, reuse it. For example, instead of recycling your shampoo bottle, keep it and refill it from the bulk section. Third, if you eat out, bring pyrex to the restaurant and have leftovers put in this container rather than in styrofoam. Next, since some curbside recycling programs no longer accept paper, non-corrugated cardboard and glass, procure several bins, save these items (like we all did in 1980) and find a facility that will accept them. This, of course, will require that you personally drive the bins this facility. It might cost a modicum of time on Saturday morning but it will also will serve to inculcate in your child a sense of culpability for responsible management of their waste. For those who are motivated, the BottleDrop Redemption Center at 1179 Stowe Avenue in Medford takes glass bottles for deposit. Non-deposit glass as well as printer paper, copier paper and mail will be taken for no charge at the transfer station on 8001 Table Rock Rd. in White City.

Like anything else, changes will ultimately need to be made at the political and corporate level. I sincerely hope such a paradigm shift will be integrated in years and not in decades. For a more thorough review of our recycling problem, I recommend reading Nigel Jaquiss’ recent article on the topic in Willamette Week or listening to JPR’s “China Shuts the Door to American Recyclables”.

Dr. Daniel Smith practices at Bear Creek Naturopathic Clinic. His office is on 2612 Barnett Ave.  He specializes in naturopathic oncology, but still maintains a strong family practice, treating all manner of conditions. He can be reached at 541-770-5563 or at drdanielnd@gmail.com. If you would like to schedule an appointment, please ask specifically for Dr. Dan.


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