Although recycling is often viewed as a noble effort to conserve resources and protect our ecosystems, it has the capacity to be harmful to public health and the environment if done incorrectly.
Recycling has been around for thousands of years, but it peaks and declines in conjunction with the costs of materials for production. During depressions and times of resource scarcity, such as the 1930s-1940s and the years prior to the industrial age, recycling booms because it is economically beneficial.
But now the industry faces strains that instead have to do with a multitude of interrelated issues such as the rapid economic growth of previously underdeveloped nations, environmental and public health concerns, and the growth of our throw-away, consumerist culture.
The value of recycled materials is declining, making it harder to make the vision of recycling come true where old materials are transformed into new products in a way that benefits the planet, the people, and businesses. So why is the value of recycled material declining, and what happens to your recycling during these periods?
Hardly any U.S. recyclables are processed domestically. Plastics especially are exported by the hundreds of thousands of tons each year. When China’s National Sword Policy kicked in, many other nations followed suite but imports are still getting in whether illegally smuggled in with false trade codes or simply delivered without permission.
The plastics are increasingly ending up in developing countries that are unregulated and ironically do not even have the capacity process their own plastic waste, not to mention deal with ours.
In Vietnam, workers get paid the equivalent of $6.50/day to sort out translucent and opaque plastics from the heaps of rotting material, often times not being aware that the material is not even from their own country.
It is often the world’s poorest countries, such as Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal that are handling U.S. plastic recyclables, and often with cheap labor, limited environmental regulation, and poor and dangerous working conditions that are a public health hazard.
Because the U.S. currently can send plastic waste of any quality to private entities in developing countries without permission from their government, many of these countries are becoming so overwhelmed with foreign trash that they can’t sort their own. While an agreement was reached last month by 187 countries to stop this from happening, the U.S. has chosen not to be a part of it. With no global regulations against these exports, it is poor and developing nations that will end up paying the price for cleaning up after the U.S.
And the people of these nations may be subjected to toxins working with these materials and being near the process of melting plastics into pellets, sometimes for record low wages or even no wages at all if they happen to live nearby.
As the quality and value of recycled plastics decreases, much of what is exported to other countries is unusable and becomes waste that must be dealt with on top of the country’s own waste.
While recycling has great potential, it can also cause grave issues if it’s continued to be done in unsafe and unstructured environments. The volume of plastic we create continues to grow along with the many different types we now produce, which does not make it an easy or cheap process.
For recycling to flourish to its full potential, we must process our recyclables in domestic, modern factories that are designed to properly shelter toxins from workers and the environment.
We will continue to stay on top of the latest trends in the recycling industry and hope the information we provide is useful to our readers. Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, we are here to help you navigate through all the recyclable import changes. If you handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill supply via our website or phone at 866-333-BERG. Talk to us about purchasing all your scrap paper, plastic, metal, textiles, glass grades, e-waste, and any other materials.