Umbra on exporting our recycling
While we were cleaning out a family member’s house, a neighbor stopped by to see what we were up to. I mentioned that we were tossing “real trash” into the large dumpster and compiling recyclable materials for a trip to the recycling center or metal scrap yard. We don’t know this person well, but without him knowing our political persuasion, he stated that recycling is just another segment of the “liberal lie” and that only 2 percent or less of recyclables collected by municipalities in the United States are processed and used here. He then claimed that the remainder is shipped to Taiwan. He went on to state that there is only one plant in the western United States (located in California) that takes household recyclables and that we might as well just toss everything in the dumpster. Frankly, I found his commentary annoying and I want to ask you if there is any truth behind his statements. Your commentary will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance.
Crazily enough, Mr. Liberal Lie was actually close to the mark on one of his wacky comments. The rest of it was just apocryphal nosy-neighbor commentary. Let me expound.
Let’s start with where he got it wrong. Aluminum cans, steel (a.k.a. tin) cans, and glass stay stateside for processing and rebirth. (Glass is dang heavy and thus expensive to ship.) Hundreds of processing facilities for these materials sprinkle our fair nation, and many more material recovery facilities supply them with bales of product. I have no idea where Mr. Liberal Lie got his weird notions about the plant in California.
Now, let’s talk Taiwan. I’m sure you’ve noticed many U.S. industries leaving for cheaper global pastures: electronics, banking, software, hardware, food production, etc. Recycling is an industry like any other, trying to cut costs, and Asian markets for recycled materials are huge. Labor is cheaper, newer plants in Asia have spankin’ efficient equipment, and Asian plants can often offer higher prices per bale than domestic plants. Even including shipping! Plastics plants in Hong Kong or China will often take plastics No. 3 through No. 7, which are unwanted here. All of these factors give Asian plants a competitive edge, so West Coast plastics and paper products frequently travel the Pacific for their Extreme Makeover.
Is this overseas shipment a problem? The change is so recent that stateside experts are only beginning to examine the net gains and losses. The potential issues concern international environmental and labor standards, as well as any additional environmental impacts of the shipping. Should municipalities follow their recycling to Taiwan and see what is happening there? That question is on the shredding edge of the recycling industry.
Is recycling a liberal lie? Well, it’s not a lie: Objects are recycled, both domestically and internationally. Is it liberal? Well, it creates jobs, preserves natural resources, and reduces air pollution, so it’s safe to say that it’s not part of the Right’s agenda. So your neighbor is right, Right, wrong, and annoying.
Get Grist in your inbox