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Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, with exceptions and caveats at every turn, leaving the average American scratching their head at the simple act of throwing something away. Jennie Romer, author of “Can I Recycle This?” joins NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker as he delves into the nebulous, confusing world of American recycling.
There is little doubt that recycling can help to improve the environment. But depending on where you live, the rules can vary greatly. And when it comes to plastics, millions of tons still wind up in landfills, threatening our health and the environment.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.
My weekly recycling routine is an anxious one.
Cardboard boxes, kids artwork, junk mail go in the paper bin and I feel reasonably assured I am doing it right.
But it's the plastics that set my heart racing. The yogurt cups, the coffee lids, the condiment containers. Every week the same question, 'I can recycle this….right?'
Most people really have no idea, we just kind of put your recycling in your bin and hope for the best.
Jennie Romer is author of "Can I Recycle This?" a guide to better recycling. A conversation with her about recycling is both comforting and unsettling.
When we think about recycling, for the most part, we think about something just getting turned into another item and that's not what's happening with a lot of our plastics. Recycling is a commodities market and it's all about whether there's someone that wants to buy that item, to turn it into something else.
And who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.
Sitting in the middle of the chasing arrow symbol is a number. If it is 1 or 2, it's high value and most likely will be sold on the commodities market. A 3 through 7, the mixed plastic, is low value.
Number 1 and number 2 bottles and jugs are really the most recyclable. So HTPE natural plastic milk jugs get sold for about $1000 a ton, but whereas a lot of mixed plastics, like 3 – 7's, are sold for negative $17 a ton, that means that you have to pay someone to take it away.
It wasn't always this way. For years our mixed plastics would be bundled with the high-value plastics and still find a market, but that changed in 2018.
For a long time we were sending stuff to China. For a long time we were sending a lot of our low-value plastic waste to China, but China closed its doors to a lot of the low-value plastic waste. They just said, you can't send us your contaminated plastic anymore.
This meant that municipal recycling facilities had to spend more time sorting between plastics, pulling out the 1 and 2's and paying for the removal of 3 through 7's.
But even if it is a 1 or 2, that doesn't ensure a future sale.
So if something is so small that it'll fall through and it'll fall through the machinery, then it's not going to end up being recycled things like your little plastic cups of salsa or fork or straw. They're not going to make it through.
What's the what's the broader, bigger cost of all of this?
There are a lot of costs. So there's a huge cost in the environment. If you're not recycling, if you're not source reducing, every time that you're manufacturing something, you're extracting minerals. You're extracting fossil fuels from the earth. Another big cost is the end of– the end of life for these products. So if they're incinerated, if they go to landfill, if they know a lot of what happens with our low-value plastic waste is that we ship it abroad and then it ends up polluting the environment and hurting human health in other parts of the world.
Things may be changing. After the Chinese market dried up an unexpected coalition has formed to champion what's known as 'extended producer liability." Laws and regulations that would require plastics producers to pay for the recycling and disposal of their products.
For a long time it was really the environmental groups that were pushing a lot of a lot of the recycling policy. Now we're seeing a lot more municipal recyclers coming to the table, going to the legislature and saying 'we want extended producer responsibility laws. We want the producers, the manufacturers to pay for the recycling and disposal of these products, because it's not fair, it's not fair that they that the cities and municipalities are ending up with all this low-value waste that they have to pay someone to haul away.'
How has this work changed you as a consumer?
I try whenever I can to buy in bulk to use refill systems if they're available. I try to avoid certain things. I always bring my own utensils and straws when I go places. I bring my own water bottle, I bring my own bag, but when you get to a lot of the packaged goods that are in the grocery store shelves, a lot of the time you don't have a real alternative. I will go out of my way more than most people, but I want to see a system where it isn't difficult, where you can make choices that are good for the environment, that reduce packaging without having to go really far out of your way and be the outlier.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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