Recycling Is BS Update: Even Aluminum Recycling Is a Mess

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©. Coors

Our recycling system is broken, and we can't fix it without changing the way we live.

For over a decade we have been saying that Recycling is BS, "a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America" or "Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country or farther so that somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky."

It all worked – sort of – while when the stuff could be shipped to China, but then they stopped accepting our dirty waste. This is causing problems everywhere. According to Rebecca Beitsch in the Washington Post, it is putting small-town recycling programs in the dumps.

“They didn’t just change the policies, they radically changed the entire world market in one fell swoop,” said Joe Greer, director of sales for Buffalo Recycling Enterprises, which accepts recyclables from a number of small towns along Lake Erie.

Interestingly, urban design has something to do with it. "Small-town recycling programs already are more expensive than those in bigger cities. Houses tend to be farther apart, making collection more expensive."

Meanwhile, compostable plastics make things worse.

Piles of garbage

© Sean Gallup/Getty Images

According to Saabira Chaudhuri in the Wall Street Journal, attempts by big companies to roll out compostable packaging are useless.

The problem is most compostable products don’t break down on their own. They need high heat and moisture, conditions found mainly in special industrial facilities. Inadequate labeling and a lack of infrastructure mean many of these products end up in regular trash bins, industry executives say. Compostable products are then burned or sent to landfills, where—deprived of oxygen and microorganisms—they don’t degrade.

As we have noted before on TreeHugger, they also screw up the regular recycling, since they often look the same and contaminate the plastic. Companies are also using the fact that they are selling compostables to bring out new products that nobody needs.

Unilever last year rolled out biodegradable face wipes under its Simple brand, playing up their environmental benefits with a pack decorated with pictures of trees. The package doesn’t ask consumers to compost but instead tells them to throw used wipes in the bin....But Biodegradable Products Institute chief Rhodes Yepsen warns such products are of limited use because most consumers don’t have the space to wait months for packaging to break down at home, while oceans and landfills remain undesirable places for it to end up.

And even aluminum recycling is broken.

Aluminum cans photo

Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Aluminum cans are the easiest and most profitable item in the recycling bin, right? Except right now, the market is in turmoil.

According to Colin Staub in Resource Recycling, the price of used beverage cans (UBCs) has dropped from about 75 cents per pound last year to 55 cents, the lowest it has been since 2009. A major reason is the trade war with China, which has imposed tariffs on American scrap imports in retaliation for President Trump's tariffs. This has created a glut, so the price has dropped. So, of course, the cities and towns will pay more to have it recycled.

Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council, added that aluminum “does have a high value but its effective change on the average commodity revenue [for MRFs] is small.” The price drop may be felt primarily by municipalities, he noted, because many contracts are structured in a way that shields the MRF (recycling facility) when commodity prices decline.

This is why we have to go beyond a circular economy and get rid of single-use plastics entirely.

credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Ellen MacArthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

It becomes more clear every day that we have never had a real recycling system, just a very long linear one that went from the producer through our homes to China. Attempts to make it circular through recycling are not going to work because these companies are selling convenience as well as coffee or pop, and will keep inventing ways to sell single-use products, even if they make up pretend recycling programs like Keurig or new pretend plastic substitutes that miraculously turn into plant food.

Instead, we have to return to what we had before this started 60 years ago: refillable bottles, cooking real food, drinking coffee from a cup and deposits on everything. Because recycling is BS, and we can't just throw it all in a hole.