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Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

In response to a global emergency in recycling, Cape Cod is working to find destinations for its recycling closer to home, eliminate contamination, and reduce plastic use overall.

Do you consider yourself a good recycler when it comes to household or business waste? Have your habits produced more volume of recyclables as time has passed, while producing a significant decrease in your total output of trash? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you might feel good about yourself and the contribution you are making to help the environment through recycling. Unfortunately, despite what we all may think, there was a time a few years ago when we weren’t doing a good job at all. Sure, our habits were evolving and recycling volume was quickly increasing, but the quality of the recycling loads—judged by how much non-recyclable material were contaminating them—was very poor…by Chinese standards.

Wait, why should Chinese standards matter? Because at one point the U.S. was exporting nearly 70 percent of our recyclable plastics across the ocean to be processed in Chinese facilities. The market for this, including the cost of the trans-ocean trip, existed. After all, if the recyclable plastic is likely going to be a component in Chinese-made products anyway, it would need to make the trip, processed or not, anyway, wouldn’t it? Container ships had been routinely traveling to China and a few other Asian countries with thousands of tons of recyclable materials for years. But in the 2010s the Chinese especially were noticing that the loads had significant amounts of non-recyclables in them. In Americans’ rush to recycle—and the increasing reliance on single stream recycling—everyone along the chain began neglecting their responsible practices. Consumers were putting too many non-recyclables into the streams. Haulers and processing facilities were accepting them but not doing their part to sort out the contaminating trash.

At first, they warned us: Clean up your recycling, or we will turn it away. But the cleanup didn’t happen as the process was failing in too many links along the chain, and China started turning loads away, at a significant cost to the shippers, and prices started rising. In some cases here on Cape Cod, it went from “towns were paid (or given rebates) for their recyclables” to “towns were charged to haul it away.” Believe it or not, recycling for a time was actually more expensive than trash to haul away, making it economically smarter to actually throw recyclables out. Then in 2017, Chinese facilities—which handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste—announced under the National Sword policy that in 2018 they would no longer import plastic recyclables. Haulers began hoarding plastic as they searched for new destinations, even as domestic facilities expanded their capacity. Stories abounded that some municipalities simply shipped off recyclables to be incinerated. Recycling was at a crossroads, and everybody had to step up.

“Domestic markets have picked up,” says Kari Purcell, the County of Barnstable’s Municipal Reduction Coordinator. “But not as much as they need to in order to meet demand.” The National Sword policy was a real wake-up call, she explains. While educating people on how to better recycle had always been a feel-good practice, now it was now changing behavior that has direct economic ramifications.

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