As we noted in last October’s edition of the PRT, China’s decision to drastically restrict the quality and quantity of the waste products it is willing to accept from countries around the world has turned the recycling industry in the U.S. and in most Western countries upside down. Sadly, it has brought to light the reality that most of what we put in those blue recycling bins behind the Patagonia post office will wind up in the county landfill.

However, there may be a silver lining to this crisis of contaminated castoffs. Current news from the waste recovery and recycling industries reports that there is renewed interest among the players in these industries in developing new technologies and strategies for
reducing waste in the production, marketing and consumption of all manner of products from food to electronics and reusing materials after those same products and their packaging after they’ve been consumed or outlived their usefulness.

The recycling crisis is often seen as a short-term economic problem. If municipalities can’t find buyers for the materials their citizens want to recycle, they must either stockpile those materials until a market materializes or dispose of them in a landfill. While this makes money sense in the short run, we will have to come to grips with the reality that the earth’s natural resources are finite and we will need to think of waste reduction and recovery as municipal services we pay for in the same way we pay for utilities like water, sewer, electricity and natural gas, all of which allow us to live the life of safety and convenience we take for granted.

It’s time we stop exporting our contaminated waste to far flung corners of the world and instead support the development of cutting-edge technologies, services and financing arrangements to reduce, reuse and recycle right here. We can all help by purchasing products from producers that minimize packaging, repurposing used items and recycling those items that can’t be easily repurposed. (See accompanying graphic for recycling rules.) Further, we should elect public officials at every level of government who will support public policies that reward citizens for incorporating these measures into
their daily lives and to build the cost of waste reduction and recovery services into their budgets just as they do other municipal services.

If we all do our part, the shared burden will be light and we’ll be investing in a brighter future for ourselves and those who will “inherit the Earth.”