- Recycled materials and trash have been on a path of convergence within the U.S., rather than bifurcating into distinct categories of recycling and waste divergence, according to a press release from the National Recycling Coalition (NRC).
- While the recent embargo by China on recycling imports has accelerated the issue for the U.S., it has only exposed, rather than precipitated, the extent of the commingling of waste diversion and recycling.
- Useful materials are produced by material recovery facilities (MRFs) via single- and dual-stream inputs, but when 20% and more of the input "recyclable" stream is not actually recyclable, the net result is a slower process that does not warrant higher market prices, or fast, dirty recycling that has no markets at all.
Education and enforcement represent two barriers to the recycling industry's path toward stability and growth, as China — and other countries potentially to follow — restrict their import of recycled materials. Because the individual plays such an integral component to the overall success (or failure) of the abilities of MRFs to produce clean material that can be converted into a commoditized resource, companies face a heightened challenge of compliance moving forward.
However, NRC highlights a critical challenge that the individual presents: wish-cycling. Consumer enthusiasm for recycling tends to be high, yet many consumers don't properly understand what materials can be recycled, therefore "wish-cyclers" contaminate the recycling stream at a more accelerated rate than if they were less enthused. Recycle Across America Executive Director Mitch Hedlund addressed this problem in an interview with Waste Dive in which she said that education cannot fix this challenge.
"Everybody talks about, well, let's educate more. Well, you can't educate more because wherever we go out in public, or even at our home, the rules are different, the way that the information is presented is completely different, and truthfully, it's presented in such a bad way that it's hard for people to take it too seriously," she said. "We have to make the labeling standardized across the U.S."
This has also lead to challenges of enforcement — or, rather, a lack of enforcement, which can result in continued wish-cycling. Ted Onufrak, executive director of Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, suggests that a move away from single-stream to dual-stream may be a solution for this. "The best method of education is on the job training. Source separated recycling at the curb provides that education day in and day out — to every customer, every collection day. One doesn't need to hope the customer reads the newsletter or the directions they’ve been given," he wrote in an opinion post.
As the China ban continues to turn the recycling industry on its head, it is clear that cities and counties nationwide are scrambling for solutions. There is not one silver bullet to address the ban — as evidenced by Waste Dive's 50 state tracker of how import policies have affected each state — yet an urgency to shift the public perception of consumption and recycling is at a peak level from coast to coast. NRC notes that China is "shining a mirror on our recycling industry," and it is up to leaders to immediately act on the matter to ensure our industry is reflected in a favorable manner.