As recycling struggles it’s still vital – and it’s still not nearly enough

  • Concord High School senior Jaden Phillips fills her water container from the new dispenser in the second floor hallway. Using water containers saves on having to recycle plastic bottles. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • A blue recycling bin in the professional librarty at Concord High School sits under a table by the door. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Recycling still holds a prominent place in our schools and in our homes. But the recent decline in the recycling market means many of the items we expect are being recycled are instead going out with the trash. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/27/2019 9:00:24 PM

It isn’t easy to re-examine a lifetime habit, even when the lifetime hasn’t been all that long. Consider recycling.

“I was kind of a little suspicious when I saw it, ” said Jenna Meyer, an 11th-grade member of Concord High School’s EnviroCorps club, remembering her first encounter with single-stream recycling after moving here from South Carolina. Down South her family took a weekly trip to the transfer station and separated out their plastic, paper, metal and glass by hand; in most New Hampshire cities you toss them all into a single bucket that gets whisked away.

“I wondered, who’s going to separate it?” Meyer admitted as her twin sister, Brianna, nodded.

That has proven to be a very good question in the last year since China, our biggest market for recyclables, cracked down on the quality of material we send them.

Material that was once shipped overseas is piling up and recycling costs have soared to the point that a few local towns have abandoned municipal recycling for the time being, while single-stream communities like Concord are limiting what can be put in the bin. Plastic bags were the first items to be declared verboten in Concord but judging from what I heard last week at a conference for a regional recycling group, they may not be the last.

All this has removed some of the luster from recycling, which has long been the centerpiece of consumer environmental action. I wanted to see what effect that change is having on teens who have grown up with recycling as a central tenet of life.

During our hour-long chat, every club member recalled recycling lessons in their earliest grades and often at home, to the point where not recycling would be like tossing your household garbage out the car window as you drove down the street.

“We always had a place in our house for it. I grew up with that,” said 10th-grader Alice Richards. “My parents used to say, ‘Put paper here, bottles here, cardboard here.’ ”

For this generation, not recycling would be very weird. Still, the teens were realistic that it’s not perfect.

“It is a way to make myself feel less guilty for using water bottles,” said Brianna Meyer, explaining one of the appeals of recycling. “They’re hard to avoid – if you’re at an event and they give you a plastic water bottle, what do you do? It’s a way out of that, a way to not throw it in the trash. … as long as I thought it was being turned into something else.”

Despite any new doubts, they said, they are doubling down on recycling while we figure out the industry anew.

“It’s definitely not going to be recycled if you throw it in the trash,” said Jenna Meyer. Everybody agreed.

They’re not the only ones who are doubling down. Hundreds of people who make a living out of collecting the material we toss out and turning it into something else met in Manchester on May 20-21 for the annual conference of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association. Seminar topics ranged from coping with Vermont’s unique mandatory composting law – those little stickers on fruit are an inorganic nightmare – to the best way of holding together 500 pounds of crushed plastic bottles now that processing plants no longer let you use scrap cardboard as a cheap container.

Nobody was denying the economic shock that the industry has faced since China stopped taking pretty much anything we wanted to get rid of, and doing it on the cheap. (One reason it was so cheap: Container ships returning to China to pick up more export goods were desperate for something to fill their holds, so trans-Pacific carrying charges were ridiculously low. It was cheaper to move tons of cardboard to China by ship than to the West Coast by rail.)

Frankly, we got lazy. Near the end, I was told, it wasn’t uncommon for 20% of a shipment of recyclables to be contaminated with, say, food-stained packaging or the wrong kind of plastic or broken glass amid the cardboard. In other words, out of every 100 tons of material we allegedly recycled, as much as 20 tons was being pulled out by hand in China and burned in the open air or tossed into unlined garbage pits. Yuck.

Now that we can’t get away with this anymore we’re all scrambling to change. You and I see this in education programs about what to not put into our single-stream bins or how to separate material in places where you head to the transfer station. Glass in my town, for example, is now limited to jars and bottles without lids; broken windows, ceramics and other glass-like stuff that once was recycled is now thrown away.

The corporate world is also starting to move, too, recreating some of the domestic recycling industry that went bankrupt when we all sent our material to China to save a few bucks. Crushing glass to use as aggregate in roadwork is starting to take off and several paper mills, including one in Rumford, Maine, are being refurbished so they can take old cardboard or even mixed paper and turn it back into a usable product. Other businesses are starting to recycle other material, too, some as specific as taking plastic waste from medical companies and turning it into doctor’s scrubs.

This will take years to get going, however, so the economic pressure isn’t going to lessen anytime soon.

There’s an ironic twist to the paper mill story, by the way: The big investor so far is Nine Dragons Paper, a Chinese company. American investors, I was told, are still leery after getting burned in the past decade when they spent millions on recycling mills and then couldn’t get enough raw material to stay in business.

Returning to our Concord High School EnviroCorps club, I don’t want to overplay their dependence on recycling. They realize that it can be something of a greenwashing crutch if it becomes the final save-the-Earth step instead of the first step.

“For our school system, that was what they used to teach as their way to teach you to be nice to the environment. That was the easy thing they used, to make you care,” said Richards. “It’s something tangible – people can understand recycling, it can be summarized.”

Brianna Meyer agreed. “Reduce, reuse recycle – people forget the reduce and reuse part, they just want to recycle. … It doesn’t impact their lives, doesn’t affect their lives that much.”

Like all of us, they know that hard decisions will need to be made to cope with climate change but wrestle with the reality of those decisions.

For example, I pointed out that perhaps the biggest thing Concord High School could do to help the environment would be to ban student cars and make everybody take the school bus. Dead silence fell on the room.

Objections were quickly raised: devastated after-school programs, unequal distribution of harm, near-impossible enforcement. All those are valid drawbacks – but there usually are some drawbacks to any environmental program, which is why many never happen. And that helps explain why Portsmouth is slowly going underwater and our grandchildren will have to drive to Quebec to ski.

If the students hadn’t been so polite they could have pointed that I’m not exactly walking the walk as I talk the talk. I drive an hour-long commute to work and will be flying down to see my father instead of using an extra vacation day taking the bus and train. Few of us are ready for the life changes that are going to be needed in the coming decades.

Let’s hope that’s going to change. As conditions worsen, maybe it will.

“Now we can really see how it’s starting to affect us. It is showing the hard realities to people,” said Richards.

In other words, recycling is still important – but nobody can pretend that it’s enough.

 

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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