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Beyond the slogan of reduce, reuse & recycle: Time for state action.

April 14, 2018

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Recycling is about so much more than blue plastic bins.  It is a profound belief that we, as a society, must find meaningful ways to reduce our ecological, economic and environmental footprint on the world through thinking and acting in a more gentle way. The power of reducing our society’s waste—food, plastic, wood products, fossil fuels, building materials and so much more—is among the most significant steps we can take to reduce our carbon impact and improve our planet.  Imagine the savings—top to bottom—if we dramatically reduced our waste.

Three hundred million tons of plastic are produced by humans annually—that’s a 620% increase over the past 30 years. Every second, 1,500 plastic water bottles are used in the U.S.  Our oceans are hit with 8 million tons of plastic every year.  It takes 400 years for plastic to degrade.  

It’s time for a bold new approach to waste reduction, and policy changes in China open the door.  

China’s recent announcement is a teachable moment, a symbolic representation of the opportunity for this broader change.

Since the sudden announcement last year that China is banning the import of at least 24 varieties of solid waste and recyclables, many individuals and municipalities have been left unsure how to proceed. For years, we in the United States have relied on China’s facilities, which have used scrap plastics as well as other materials to fuel their manufacturing efforts. It’s not a perfect system—shipping plastic overseas for recycling is hardly ideal from a carbon standpoint and an alarming amount of plastic ends up in the ocean—but it’s worked relatively well.

China had previous announced that they would be reducing the scope of this system, but this ban is unprecedented.

According to the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association (WRRA), a local industry group made up of solid waste companies and professionals, “there is no country or combination of countries that can consume the amount of material China has historically imported for manufacturing,” as China is “the largest manufacturing nation in the world and the single largest consumer of recyclables.”

Unfortunately, it’s expensive and labor-intensive to actually break down many of our recyclable materials. That means that local organizations are simply not equipped to do what China has been doing for so many years. As a result, plastics are piling up as transfer stations try to find new buyers for their scrap, or new ways to use it.

Regular folks, who have become very accustomed to recycling their plastic materials by putting them on the curb and seeing them whisked away, are rightfully concerned that they’re now no longer doing enough. So what are we doing?

Working with private partners to improve material sorting. Washington already has one of the most well-run recycling systems in the nation, but China’s lower threshold for contaminants is still a new issue that we have to address. That means waste management agencies and private companies have to work together to come up with more efficient ways to ensure that our recyclables that are still being shipped to China are actually being accepted. That can mean anything from fine-tuning sorting machines to hiring more people to do these jobs.

Sharing information and ideas with the World Trade Organization, other government agencies, and private partners. The WRRA as an industry is motivated to tackle the issue head on. And so should the public sector.  At this point, we need to plan for the future and invest in our own methods of recycling and reusing materials. That means a lot of meetings, reading, and research. Fortunately, Washington already helps support innovations of this sort by helping to fund our institutions of higher education. That is helpful and purposeful but hardly sufficient. 

As chair of the Energy, Environment & Technology Committee, I am keenly interested in learning global best practices of waste reduction, recycling and investing in a circular economy.  I hope to explore this issue in more depth next year. I will be reaching out to environmental and business groups, local governments and national thought leaders for new ideas and approaches.  Your ideas are welcome and appreciated. 

Cut down on plastic usage. The fact is that much of the plastic which we were “recycling” (and by that I mean “putting in a recycling bin”) previously wasn’t useable. There isn’t market demand for many kinds of plastic scraps, and the best thing we can all do is reduce our use of plastic goods altogether. We’ve taken some steps—like the various plastic bag bans in cities—but everyone needs to be involved in this effort. Whether that means switching to compostable flatware in restaurants, encouraging businesses to use glass and cardboard when possible, or simply bringing your own cup to the coffee shop, we should all be reducing our usage.

Clean and sort your recyclables. One of the issues that our transfer stations are seeing is that many people assume anything and everything can go in the blue bin—and that’s just not the case. Rinse your containers and pay attention to which items aren’t accepted in local recycling efforts. You can always check with your waste management service if you’ve got questions.

Many of the most common materials that we use every day are able to be recycled once we’re finished with them, but the circuit isn’t completed the moment we toss a plastic bottle in the bin. China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic materials has been a jarring one and has certainly forced many of us to reconsider our relationship with disposable materials, but it’s not the end of recycling, particularly not in a place like Washington State.

And yet, we all know that it’s simply insufficient.  All of this is painfully modest compared to the need for broad systems change in how we use materials. 

In theory, the Legislature is sensitive to this issue.  But the truth is less polished.  We have yet to fully embrace the systems work.  It’s time to move beyond the slogan and work harder and smarter as a state to reduce, reuse and recycle.  

What are your ideas?  Think Big.

We are so much more than what we’ve become.

Your partner in service,

Reuven

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