United States of America

Is This the End of Recycling?

Americans are consuming more and more stuff. Now that other countries won’t take our papers and plastics, they’re ending up in the trash.

Americans are consuming more and more stuff. Now that other countries won’t take our papers and plastics, they’re ending up in the trash.

by Alana Semuels

After decades of earnest public-information campaigns, Americans are finally recycling. Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country have bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you can be fined if inspectors discover that you haven’t recycled appropriately.

But now much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.

For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.

Most are choosing the latter. “We are doing our best to be environmentally responsible, but we can’t afford it,” said Judie Milner, the city manager of Franklin, New Hampshire. Since 2010, Franklin has offered curbside recycling and encouraged residents to put paper, metal, and plastic in their green bins. When the program launched, Franklin could break even on recycling by selling it for $6 a ton. Now, Milner told me, the transfer station is charging the town $125 a ton to recycle, or $68 a ton to incinerate. One-fifth of Franklin’s residents live below the poverty line, and the city government didn’t want to ask them to pay more to recycle, so all those carefully sorted bottles and cans are being burned. Milner hates knowing that Franklin is releasing toxins into the environment, but there’s not much she can do. “Plastic is just not one of the things we have a market for,” she said.

The same thing is happening across the country. Broadway, Virginia, had a recycling program for 22 years, but recently suspended it after Waste Management told the town that prices would increase by 63 percent, and then stopped offering recycling pickup as a service. “It almost feels illegal, to throw plastic bottles away,” the town manager, Kyle O’Brien, told me.

Without a market for mixed paper, bales of the stuff started to pile up in Blaine County, Idaho; the county eventually stopped collecting it and took the 35 bales it had hoped to recycle to a landfill. The town of Fort Edward, New York, suspended its recycling program in July and admitted it had actually been taking recycling to an incinerator for months. Determined to hold out until the market turns around, the nonprofit Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful has collected 400,000 tons of plastic. But for now, it is piling the bales behind the facility where it collects plastic.

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.

Read: ‘We are all accumulating mountains of things’

For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the costs of all this garbage are growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash.

One of those costs is environmental: When organic waste sits in a landfill, it decomposes, emitting methane, which is bad for the climate—landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the country. Burning plastic may create some energy, but it also produces carbon emissions. And while many incineration facilities bill themselves as “waste to energy” plants, studies have found that they release more harmful chemicals, such as mercury and lead, into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants.

And as cities are now learning, the other cost is financial. The United States still has a fair amount of landfill space left, but it’s getting expensive to ship waste hundreds of miles to those landfills. Some dumps are raising costs to deal with all this extra waste; according to one estimate, along the West Coast, landfill fees increased by $8 a ton from 2017 to 2018. Some of these costs are already being passed on to consumers, but most haven’t—yet.

Americans are going to have to come to terms with a new reality: All those toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles that didn’t exist 50 years ago need to go somewhere, and creating this much waste has a price we haven’t had to pay so far. “We’ve had an ostrich-in-the-sand approach to the entire system,” said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade association. “We’re producing a lot of waste ourselves, and we should take care of it ourselves.”

As the trash piles up, American cities are scrambling to figure out what to do with everything they had previously sent to China. But few businesses want it domestically, for one very big reason: Despite all those advertising campaigns, Americans are terrible at recycling.

About 25 percent of what ends up in the blue bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. For decades, we’ve been throwing just about whatever we wanted—wire hangers and pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and yogurt containers—into the bin and sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. That’s no longer an option. And in the United States, at least, it rarely makes sense to employ people to sort through our recycling so that it can be made into new material, because virgin plastics and paper are still cheaper in comparison.

Even in San Francisco, often lauded for its environmentalism, waste-management companies struggle to keep recycling uncontaminated. I visited a state-of-the-art facility operated by San Francisco’s recycling provider, Recology, where million-dollar machines separate aluminum from paper from plastic from garbage. But as the Recology spokesman Robert Reed walked me through the plant, he kept pointing out nonrecyclables gumming up the works. Workers wearing masks and helmets grabbed laundry baskets off a fast-moving conveyor belt of cardboard as some non-cardboard items escaped their gloved hands. Recology has to stop another machine twice a day so a technician can pry plastic bags from where they’ve clogged up the gear.

Bales of plastic are piled at a Recology facility in San Francisco. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Bales of plastic are piled at a Recology facility in San Francisco. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Cleaning up recycling means employing people to slowly go through materials, which is expensive. Jacob Greenberg, a commissioner in Blaine County, Idaho, told me that the county’s mixed-paper recycling was about 90 percent clean. But its paper broker said the mixed paper needed to be 99 percent clean for anyone to buy it, and elected officials didn’t want to hike fees to get there. “At what point do you feel like you’re spending more money than what it takes for people to feel good about recycling?” he said.

Then there’s the challenge of educating people about what can and can’t be recycled, even as the number of items they touch on a daily basis grows. Americans tend to be “aspirational” about their recycling, tossing an item in the blue bin because it makes them feel less guilty about consuming it and throwing it away. Even in San Francisco, Reed kept pointing out items that aren’t easily recyclable but that keep showing up at the Recology plant: soy-sauce packets and pizza boxes, candy-bar wrappers and dry-cleaner bags, the lids of to-go coffee cups and plastic take-out containers.

If we can somehow figure out how to better sort recycling, some U.S. markets for plastics and paper may emerge. But selling it domestically will still be harder than it would be in a place such as China, where a booming manufacturing sector has constant demand for materials. The viability of recycling varies tremendously by locale; San Francisco can recycle its glass back into bottles in six weeks, according to Recology, while many other cities are finding that glass is so heavy and breaks so easily that it is nearly impossible to truck it to a place that will recycle it. Akron, Ohio, is just one of many cities that have ended glass recycling since the China policy changes.

For now, it’s still often cheaper for companies to manufacture using new materials than recycled ones. Michael Rohwer, a director at Business for Social Responsibility, works with companies that try to be more environmentally friendly. He told me that recycled plastic costs pennies more than new plastic, and those pennies add up when you’re manufacturing millions of items. Items made of different types of plastic nearly always end up in the trash, because recyclers can’t separate the plastics from one another—Reed equates it with trying to get the sugar and eggs out of a cake after you’ve baked it. But because companies don’t bear the costs of disposal, they have no incentive to manufacture products out of material that will be easier to recycle.

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. The strong economy means more people have more spending money, too, and often the things they buy, such as new phones, and the places they shop, such as Amazon, are designed to sell them even more things. The average American spent 7 percent more on food and 8 percent more on personal-care products and services in 2017 than in 2016, according to government data.

Some places are still trying to get people to buy less. The city of San Francisco, for instance, is trying to get residents to think of a fourth r beyond “reduce, reuse, and recycle”—“refuse.” It wants people to be smarter about what they purchase, avoiding plastic bottles and straws and other disposable goods. But it’s been tough in a place centered on acquiring the newest technology. “This is our big challenge: How do you take a culture like San Francisco and get people excited about less?” Debbie Raphael, the director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, told me. The city passed an ordinance that required that 10 percent of beverages sold be available in reusable containers, and it is trying to make reuse “hip” through an online campaign and dedicated website, Raphael said. San Francisco and other Bay Area cities have banned plastic bags and plastic straws, but that option isn’t available in many other parts of the country, where recently passed state laws prevent cities from banning products.

But even in San Francisco, the most careful consumers still generate a lot of waste. Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle because the material they’re made of is so flimsy—but it’s hard to find berries not sold in those containers, even at most farmers’ markets. Go into a Best Buy or Target in San Francisco to buy headphones or a charger, and you’ll still end up with plastic packaging to throw away. Amazon has tried to reduce waste by sending products in white and blue plastic envelopes, but when I visited the Recology plant, they littered the floor because they’re very hard to recycle. Even at Recology, an employee-owned company that benefits when people recycle well, the hurdles to getting rid of plastics were evident. Reed chided me for eating my daily Chobani yogurt out of small, five-ounce containers rather than out of big, 32-ounce tubs, but I saw a five-ounce Yoplait container in a trash can of the control room of the Recology plant. While there, Reed handed me a pair of small orange earplugs meant to protect my ears from the noise of the plant. They were wrapped in a type of flimsy plastic that is nearly impossible to recycle. When I left the plant, I kept the earplugs and the plastic in my bag, not sure what to do with them. Eventually, I threw them in the trash.

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AAAS Strikes Landmark Agreements to Build Long-Term China Engagement

From left to right: Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science; Sun Mengxin, deputy director-general for international affairs at the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST); Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer; and Deng Nan, chief executive secretary of CAST

From left to right: Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science; Sun Mengxin, deputy director-general for international affairs at the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST); Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer; and Deng Nan, chief executive secretary of CAST

BEIJING—With China emerging as a world research power, top AAAS officials and their Chinese counterparts signed a series of cooperative agreements that could serve as the foundation for future collaborations on a range of critical science and technology issues.

The 6-day trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou also included a conference, organized by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and AAAS, that brought together dozens of scholars and researchers from both nations to discuss scientific integrity and social responsibility. The meeting provided an opportunity to discuss efforts by both countries to address challenges that trouble the entire global research enterprise, as well as some possible areas of future collaboration such as ethics education and joint studies on specific cases.

The AAAS delegation, led by Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, held substantive talks with some of China’s most senior S&T leaders, including Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang; Deng Nan, chief executive secretary of CAST; Lu Yongxiang, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS); Shen Wenqing, who serves both as vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China and chairman of the Shanghai Association for Science and Technology; and Yang Wei, President of Zhejiang University.

Under one agreement, Project 2061, AAAS’s pioneering science literacy initiative, will provide materials that can be translated and posted on the CAST Web site. Leshner and Lu signed a separate memorandum of understanding to select, translate, and distribute 33 high-impact papers from the past decade of the journal Science.

Leshner and Deng also signed an overarching agreement to seek collaborative projects on a range of possible issues, including sustainability; public understanding of science and engineering; science education; and creating S&T opportunities for women.

“I believe that CAST and AAAS have common issues… and we’re serving similar functions in our countries,” Deng said in talks before a signing ceremony. “I believe that allows us to have even more cooperation in the broader fields of science.”

“Our organizations are similar and unique in their size and breadth of activities,” replied Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. “Our collaboration has advantages not only for our countries, but also for the whole world…. It’s very important that we take every opportunity to collaborate on our common interests.”

The new agreements and the ethics conference—resulting from months of trans-Pacific discussions—are landmarks in an ambitious new engagement between AAAS and the Chinese S&T community. The journal Science, published by AAAS, opened its first Chinese news office in Beijing this month, to be staffed by veteran correspondent Richard Stone. EurekAlert!, AAAS’s science news service, this month debuted a new Chinese-language portal to serve the nation’s journalists, researchers, businesses, and government.

Leshner described the China trip, from 24 to 29 September, as “highly informative and extremely constructive.” The AAAS delegation also included Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer, and Tom Wang, AAAS director for international cooperation. Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS’s Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, played a lead role in organizing the conference and in Beijing meetings with the Chinese Medical Association and the CAS Institute of Zoology.

“We are in an era of unprecedented global cooperation in science and technology—cooperation that not only advances the underlying sciences, but also addresses some of the major global challenges that we all face,” Turekian said. “The collaboration between Chinese and U.S. scientists, and in fact all members of the global science enterprise, will lead to more creative science and technological developments that will improve people’s lives.”

The new engagement comes at a time of remarkable growth and emergence for China. Beginning some 2000 years ago, it achieved monumental breakthroughs in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and technology. Today, following 30 years of reform and opening to the West, its economy is soaring. Shanghai and Beijing have become major world centers for business, culture, and tourism; next year, the nation will host the Summer Olympics.

Before he moved into government, Chinese President Hu Jintao was a hydraulic engineer; today, the government’s “Scientific Development Perspective” is a framework for addressing China’s complex economic, environmental, and international challenges.

To address climate change, the government in June announced plans to restructure the economy, promote clean energy technologies, and improve energy efficiency. China launched its first manned space mission in 2003; it is expected to send its first spacecraft to orbit the moon before year’s end. In July, the China Internet Network Information Center reported that 162 million Chinese were connected to the Web; while that remains just a fraction of the nation’s 1.3 billion people, in the first half of this year, an average of 100 new residents per minute logged on for the first time.

According to CAST, China’s total investment in research and development nearly tripled between 2000 through 2005. A 2006 report by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) called the R&D spending increases “unprecedented for any country in recent memory.”

In the bilateral talks and at the 2-day AAAS/CAST conference—”China-U.S. Workshop on Scientists’ Social and Ethical Responsibilities”—Chinese science officials discussed lessons learned and new approaches they are taking to address some of the challenges created by the dynamic growth of their scientific enterprise. Participants on both sides shared their experiences dealing with ethical lapses and other more serious misconduct resulting from this high-stakes environment.

During their meeting, Leshner and Wan Gang, China’s S&T minister, discussed their views on the role of increased science competition in developing strong science in both countries, as well as the pressures to succeed confronting students and researchers at every level.

Qian Yi, a professor and environmental scientist at Tsinghua University, described several cases in which advanced students were caught in violations—falsifying a C.V., falsely claiming authorship of a paper, theft of research data. In one case, she said, an accomplished young scholar committed an infraction because he was competing for a major academic prize. “He was trying to make himself perfect,” she said.

Shen Wenqing, vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, said his organization created an ethics panel in 1998. From that year through 2004, he said, the committee received an average of 92 complaints a year and averaged about nine enforcement actions. In 2006, he said, 150 complaints generated 50 disciplinary actions.

Scholars and science policy experts in the U.S. delegation found the problems remarkably similar to those at home. The conference demonstrated that integrity “has been recognized as a key national issue by the highest level of the Chinese science communities,” said William Y. Chang, director of the NSF Beijing office.

Karen Holbrook, the former president of Ohio State University, added that she was struck “by how very similar we are in our beliefs about the need for science and scientists to demonstrate complete integrity in their work—that it is a responsibility and implicit in the privilege of conducting scientific investigation.”

Chinese S&T leaders and members of the AAAS delegation said the budding relationship should lead to collaboration on a variety of issues, including scholar exchange programs; science museums and public engagement; and sustainability.

Creating opportunities for continuing engagement made the China trip “tremendously important” for both countries, Leshner said. “I believe it sends a very important signal to the rest of the global scientific community about our shared seriousness about these critical issues.”



Africa is not poor, we are stealing its wealth

It's time to change the way we talk and think about Africa.

by Nick Dearden

Mapping Africa's natural resources [Al Jazeera]

Mapping Africa's natural resources [Al Jazeera]

Africa is poor, but we can try to help its people.

It's a simple statement, repeated through a thousand images, newspaper stories and charity appeals each year, so that it takes on the weight of truth. When we read it, we reinforce assumptions and stories about Africa that we've heard throughout our lives. We reconfirm our image of Africa.

Try something different. Africa is rich, but we steal its wealth.

That's the essence of a report (pdf) from several campaign groups released today. Based on a set of new figures, it finds that sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world to the tune of more than $41bn. Sure, there's money going in: around $161bn a year in the form of loans, remittances (those working outside Africa and sending money back home), and aid.

But there's also $203bn leaving the continent. Some of this is direct, such as $68bn in mainly dodged taxes. Essentially multinational corporations "steal" much of this - legally - by pretending they are really generating their wealth in tax havens. These so-called "illicit financial flows" amount to around 6.1 percent of the continent's entire gross domestic product (GDP) - or three times what Africa receives in aid.

Then there's the $30bn that these corporations "repatriate" - profits they make in Africa but send back to their home country, or elsewhere, to enjoy their wealth. The City of London is awash with profits extracted from the land and labour of Africa.

There are also more indirect means by which we pull wealth out of Africa. Today's report estimates that $29bn a year is being stolen from Africa in illegal logging, fishing and trade in wildlife. $36bn is owed to Africa as a result of the damage that climate change will cause to their societies and economies as they are unable to use fossil fuels to develop in the way that Europe did. Our climate crisis was not caused by Africa, but Africans will feel the effect more than most others. Needless to say, the funds are not currently forthcoming.

If African countries are to benefit from foreign investment, they must be allowed to - even helped to - legally regulate that investment and the corporations that often bring it.

In fact, even this assessment is enormously generous, because it assumes that all of the wealth flowing into Africa is benefitting the people of that continent. But loans to governments and the private sector (at more than $50bn) can turn into unpayable and odious debt.

Ghana is losing 30 per cent of its government revenue to debt repayments, paying loans which were often made speculatively, based on high commodity prices, and carrying whopping rates of interest. One particularly odious aluminium smelter in Mozambique, built with loans and aid money, is currently costing the country £21 for every £1 that the Mozambique government received.

British aid, which is used to set up private schools and health centres, can undermine the creation of decent public services, which is why such private schools are being closed down in Uganda and Kenya. Of course, some Africans have benefitted from this economy. There are now around 165,000 very rich Africans, with combined holdings of $860bn.

But, given the way the economy works, where do these people mainly keep their wealth?

In tax havens.

A 2014 estimate suggests that rich Africans were holding a massive $500bn in tax havens. Africa's people are effectively robbed of wealth by an economy that enables a tiny minority of Africans to get rich by allowing wealth to flow out of Africa.

So what is the answer? Western governments would like to be seen as generous beneficiaries, doing what they can to "help those unable to help themselves". But the first task is to stop perpetuating the harm they are doing. Governments need to stop forcing African governments to open up their economy to privatisation, and their markets to unfair competition.

If African countries are to benefit from foreign investment, they must be allowed to - even helped to - legally regulate that investment and the corporations that often bring it. And they might want to think about not putting their faith in the extractives sector.

With few exceptions, countries with abundant mineral wealth experience poorer democracy, weaker economic growth, and worse development. To prevent tax dodging, governments must stop prevaricating on action to address tax havens. No country should tolerate companies with subsidiaries based in tax havens operating in their country.

Aid is tiny, and the very least it can do, if spent well, is to return some of Africa's looted wealth. We should see it both as a form of reparations and redistribution, just as the tax system allows us to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest within individual societies. The same should be expected from the global "society".

To even begin to embark on such an ambitious programme, we must change the way we talk and think about Africa. It's not about making people feel guilty, but correctly diagnosing a problem in order to provide a solution. We are not, currently, "helping" Africa. Africa is rich. Let's stop making it poorer. 

Nick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy