By Bill Chaisson
Recycling has been moving from the margins to the center of our society for over 40 years. It was initially done by nonprofits, not governments. In 1976, the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was enacted to close open dumps, create standards for landfills, incinerators and the disposal of hazardous waste. A few municipalities had already started recycling, but this and other federal legislation made it financially prudent. In 1981, Woodbury, New Jersey became the first city to mandate recycling. By 1985, there were slightly over 1,000 curbside recycling programs in the U.S. Four years later, there were 5,400.
The United States has a lot of resources and has had the reputation of being wasteful. Our wealth has allowed us to invent a throwaway society in the name of convenience and progress. But if you look more closely at our history, through the 19th century various grades of paper, metals, and carpet, burlap bags, twine, rubber and even horse hair were sorted in “picking yards” and put to use again. In the 20th century Americans have repeatedly focused recycling and reuse in times of war and in economic hard times. The first aluminum can recycling plant was built in 1904. It was not until the long wave of affluence that followed World War II that many Americans abandoned thrift and reuse for disposable goods. The amount of waste generated in the U.S. increased from 2.62 pounds per person per day in 1960 to 4.51 pounds per person per day in 1994.
Even as recycling efforts ramped up in the 1970s, waste generation was increasing at a greater rate. Recycling required a lot of effort to sort and divert materials into appropriate streams, and whether or not there was a market for these materials was a recurring question.
According to a 2000 study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, in 1960 combustion in low-efficiency combustors without energy recovery or advanced pollution-control technology burned 31% of the municipal solid waste generated. In 1980, incineration was down to 9%. However, because of increased emphasis on waste-to-energy conversion, by 1990, incineration had increased to 16% of total waste generation. Locally, the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant was part of this revival of incineration, which had declined because Clean Air laws made it too expensive for municipalities to burn trash.
In conversation with the woman who runs the Unity transfer station, I learned that Unity and one other town in Sullivan County opted out of signing a contract with Wheelabrator in 1987. The town has a small population and the contract, she said, rewarded towns for generating more trash and penalized them if they didn’t generate enough. Unity was already reducing their trash volume through recycling and didn’t see the point of giving that up.
On Jan. 1, 2018 China banned imports of 24 categories of recyclable materials. On March 1, 2018 China announced new sanitation standards for plastics and fibers (0.5% contamination). On Dec. 18, 2018 they banned 16 more categories of materials. It was the end of a relationship that lasted about 20 years. It was only in 2000, according to Scientific American writer Adam Minter in a 2015 article, that China began accepting imported plastics. The actual work is done by over 20,000 small family-owned businesses. They sort and shred it in the absence of either environmental or safety regulations. The materials are used to make second generation plastics that aren’t legal to use in the U.S., Europe, or Japan, but can be used in China. Not all the plastics are recycled, and the waste is dumped into unregulated pits. This is where our plastic waste has been going for about 20 years. The fact that it no longer does is a good thing.
The markets for recycling paper, metals, and glass have their own complications, but the volume of plastic is immense. The recycling businesses of China were at the end of a long line of brokers and middlemen. With the end of plastic importation, that is simply over. The problem of what to do instead has now gotten all the way back to our local municipalities. They are all looking for solutions to their waste problem.
Recently, when their vendor doubled the cost of accepting recycling, Charlestown announced that they would simply bring their plastic to a landfill. Their vendor, apparently fearing a cascading loss of customers, recanted. Over in Vermont, Springfield and Ludlow are rewriting their waste disposal regulations to cope with the new (lack of a) market. Meanwhile, little old Unity, which has gone its own way since 1987, is still getting paid for its plastic. They are baled and brought down to a facility in Pennsylvania, where the milk containers are sorted out and made into plastic lumber. What happens to the rest? I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.
Bill Chaisson is the editor of the Eagle Times.