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Opinion: Commentary: Reduce, Reuse, Confuse: The Issue of Recycling in America
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Opinion: Commentary: Reduce, Reuse, Confuse: The Issue of Recycling in America

Ever since I was a kid, I would always hear the three Rs: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” I would hear it from parents, from teachers, and even from random adults whom I barely knew. “Reduce, reuse recycle” became a mantra for waste reduction. Yet for me, and virtually all of my generation, only one of these directives has really stuck in our heads: “recycle.” Every day, we carefully and painstakingly make sure that every water bottle, each yogurt cup, and the weekly pizza box is put into the “recycling” bin—not the “trash” bin. And we feel good about it. We think that we are saving the environment, one milk carton at a time — until we find out the truth.

To put it quite bluntly, America recycles next to nothing. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, 25 percent of all recycling is contaminated — meaning that the recycling is mixed with non-recyclables. We often do this ourselves, putting grease-soaked pizza boxes or candy wrappers in the recycling. What’s worse is what happens with the remaining 75 percent. Recycling in America is expensive — much more expensive than in other countries. Part of the root of the problem stems from American culture itself; at the end of the day, we prefer convenience over everything else. As such, we have “mixed recycling”, where we throw in all of our Amazon boxes, pickle jars, soda cans, and everything else we erroneously think to be recyclable into the recycling bin. When we do that, recycling companies cannot differentiate between types of materials. Recology, the major recycling provider for the city of San Francisco, often has to throw away large tracts of recycling because of this problem. The Atlantic frames it as “trying to get the sugar and eggs out of a cake after you’ve baked it.” And that’s just the start... the real fun starts internationally.

Until last year, we have been sending most of our our recycling to China. NPR reports with researchers from Yale University that more than half of our recycling was sent to China. And it wasn’t just us — Japan, Germany, and other countries followed suit. In China, valuable commodities (such as semiconductors and precious metals) are picked out by low-paid workers. Those materials are then used in China's vast manufacturing industry. The rest is dumped into landfills around the country. That all changed in 2018. China announced its National Sword program, which tightened up on contamination rules for importing recycling. This effectively stopped recycling imports to China.

The U.S. and other countries started sending their recycling to smaller countries that couldn’t refuse, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. They eventually got tired of it, too. President Duterte of the Philippines threatened war against Canada if it didn’t take back more than 2,900 tons of “recycling,” which turned out to just be waste. Now, recycling is piling up in America as companies struggle to find recycling for their waste. In desperation, some companies are even now just putting their recycling in landfills because they can’t find a cost-effective recycling program. Many cities and counties are doing the same. Blaine County, Idaho started collecting its mixed paper recycling when National Sword was announced, stockpiling it in hopes of a local, sustainable recycling option. After a few months the county sent the paper to the landfill. The town of Fort Edward, N.Y. admitted to sending recycling to the incinerator for months after National Sword without telling its inhabitants. Our own school dumps everything from the gray and blue bins alike into the same two dumpsters destined for the landfill.

Recycling has failed in America. The domestic industry has struggled to deal with the mixed-plastics system and handle the sheer amount of recycling that Americans produce, especially now that China has closed it doors. Recycling is now ending up in landfills across the nation. The solution now lies in the other two parts of the three Rs—reduce and reuse.

Single-use plastics can easily be replaced with little to no economic cost but a huge ecological one. Americans use 80 million bottles a year, and bottled water is 1,000 times more expensive than tap water. Plastic bottles alone account for 14 percent of litter, but the simple switch to a reusable water bottle could effectively end more bottles entering our environment. The world goes through a million plastic bags a minute. Keeping a few tote bags in your car wherever you go is convenient, fashionable, and ecologically conscious. Buying reusable and environmentally conscious products won’t completely stop the problem, but it’s a start. So here’s my ask: in the next few days, I hope that each and every one of you reading this will switch to a reusable water bottle, start keeping shopping totes in your car, and eat seasonally as much as possible. It’s up to our generation to fix the problems the previous ones have created. A few people making big changes in their lives is not going to fix this issue; a lot of people making small changes will.

The writer is 11th grade student at Basis Independent Mclean and Founder of Basis Green Team.