It’s time to rethink recycling

Story and photo gallery by NATALIE FREEZE

Did you know that the United States is the No. 1 trash-producing country in the world? While the U.S. accounts for only 5 percent of the global population, we are producing 40 percent of the world’s waste. I may not be a math major, but that just does not add up. Garbage is a global issue, and recycling has often been praised as the universal solution, but today we need to rethink how we recycle.

In the 1970s, a new push for green movements through government-backed initiatives raised public awareness and engagement through conservation efforts. In other words, recycling became a household mission. Earth Day was also first recognized on April 22, 1970. When recycling was a new and foreign concept, officials were desperate to get people to change their behavior and get into the habit of recycling. That was almost fifty years ago. Now, in 2019, it’s time to rethink how we recycle and raise the bar.

Since China has raised its recycling standards, we need to raise and match our recycling habits to continue to make a difference. In July 2017, China declared that it no longer wants to be the recipient of other countries garbage. The waste trade boosts economies of poor countries, but as China has grown in population and wealth, they no longer want to be held responsible for garbage duty. The declaration went into effect in January 2018, but before that China had been taking almost half of the United States recyclables.

Since last January, China has stopped accepting dozens of recyclable materials, like plastic and mixed paper, unless they meet strict rules around quality and contamination. Incoming recycling must be clean and perfectly sorted, a standard that is near impossible to meet.

In reaction to these new policies, the University of Utah has had to scale back recycling programs on campus. Joshua James, the waste management and recycling program manager here at the U said, “Now we are stuck at a point where we can only recycle plastics 1 and 2, and on top of that, it needs to be clean.” Many college students don’t understand these changes or what “clean” means, making these requirements extremely difficult to meet.

Recycling is not a lost cause, but we do need to make some essential changes to what we recycle. Aspiration recycling, also known as “wish cycling”, is no longer acceptable. This is when you are not actually sure if your coffee cup or pizza box is recyclable, but you toss it in the blue bin anyways because you care about the planet. James said, “It’s a feel-good thing, but if you put the wrong thing in there it ruins it for everyone.”

Aspirational recycling actually wastes more resources than simply sending it straight to a landfill. The energy consumed taking the trash to a facility, sorting it out as non-recyclable, and then sending it a landfill is wasteful and unnecessary. It can also damage the quality of other recyclable items that it touched, condemning those items to live in a landfill as well. Simply put, when in doubt throw it out.

Quality over quantity is key as recycling is becoming even more relevant for Salt Lake City. Once the Salt Lake Valley Landfill is full, that’s it, so it is increasingly urgent to filter what is necessary to be sent to the landfill. “The majority of our landfill is paper, which ironically is also the most recyclable material,” said Ashlee Yoder, the sustainability manager with Salt Lake County. “Not if, but when this landfill is capped off we will have to start sending our waste to other counties.”

So now what?

Sorting waste into the correct bin, whether it’s compostable, recyclable or just plain trash, is essential to combat excessive waste. But ultimately, it comes down to reducing our consumption. James said, “Stop depending on recycling. Reduce, reuse, recycle is in that order for a reason; recycling is the last resort after you have reduced and reused.”

Buying less is probably the easiest way to live a greener, more sustainable lifestyle. Resist the urge to buy trendy clothes and shoes that won’t ever be worn. Stop taking a giant stack of napkins when you only need one. Invest in metal straws and reusable bags and glass containers for leftovers. Both James and Yoder emphasized the need to take responsibility for our trash and consciously think about the choices we are making.

Sophie Morton, a sophomore at the U studying environmental sustainability, adds that every little bit matters. “Some people say that refusing one straw doesn’t make a difference, but if a hundred people or a thousand people start to make little changes we will start to see serious change.”