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As recycling challenges grow, it’s time for some serious trash talk

Waste is piled up at the District of Columbias Fort Totten Transfer Station in Washington, DC, on July 10. | IVAN COURONNE/AFP/Getty Images

Something’s going to happen with our garbage. I’m not sure what. But it doesn’t sound good.

Garbage. It was just that when I was young. You stuffed all your chicken bones, old paper bags, rotten fruit and broken toys into steel drum and left it at the curb to be picked up by a truck manned by city employees with arms like Popeye’s.

By the time I got to college, people were saying all this garbage was threatening the entire world. Birds, fish and forest creatures were dying because of plastic bags, six-pack rings and cigarette butts floating in streams, rivers and eventually oceans.


People talked about the need to recycle, but most Americans didn’t know what they were talking about. There were folks who wanted to save the planet but more folks who wanted plastic straws and pop top cans.

All the garbage was being stuffed into landfills, and there weren’t enough recycling plants to provide relief. Nobody was making anything useful from recycled products (except rubber-soled tire-tread sandals for hippies) and most Americans were just getting used to the idea they could stuff all their garbage into enormous plastic bags made for specifically for that purpose. We liked that.

Things really started to change, as I recall, in the 1980s. That was about the time landfill space began to run out. Each day, thousands of tons of garbage in New York City were loaded onto barges and shipped out of state. In 1987, North Carolina asked New York to certify that its garbage did not contain contaminated chemical waste material before accepting a barge. The city of New York couldn’t do that.

The barge sailed to Florida, to Louisiana, and state after state refused to let it unload. Two countries voted to ban the garbage. The barge’s voyage became a national news story. And garbage became a really big deal.

Incinerators were built to burn garbage. But they created pollution and couldn’t burn enough garbage.

Magnificent sorting plants were designed by garbage companies to separate steak bones from used chlorine jugs, but that wasn’t efficient enough. So, recycling programs were launched.

All of us patriotic Americans were taught that it was our duty as citizens of the world to separate our milk cartons from our disposable diapers. Special color-coded plastic containers replaced the old steel drums at curbside, to identify recycled materials from the stuff that would be tossed into landfills.

Construction companies adopted methods to reuse materials in roads and buildings that used to be buried in landfills. Entire companies were created that used our cans and water bottles to make stuff that was useful. We began buying the very stuff we used to toss into the garbage.

Problem solved. World saved!

Not really. It turns out most of our recycling was actually going to China. Beginning in the 1990’s, China began taking most of the world’s garbage and turning it into profit.

Last week, while attending a village board meeting in Orland Park, I learned that something had changed. Waste Management, North America’s biggest trash hauler, was changing its rules for recycling.

A call to Waste Management revealed that’s because China wants cleaner garbage. In January it announced that it would accept only 0.5 percent contamination (about a pound) in a ton of garbage. That means no cardboard pizza boxes with crusted cheese still inside. Waste Management is going to demand our recycling get a lot cleaner.


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And by 2020, China’s plan is to ban all solid waste imports. It simply doesn’t need garbage because it is now an industrial giant.

Vietnam and India, I am told, will be taking up some of the slack. But China paid top dollar for our garbage, so there may not be as much profit in recycling as there used to be for garbage companies.

Will we return to barges that sail forever?

You know, there’s a lot of room for garbage in outer space.


Trash is piled up at the District of Columbia’s Fort Totten Transfer Station in Washington, D.C., on July 10.<br>Since China, the top global importer of recyclable materials for years, has stopped to accept recyclables from countries including the United
Trash is piled up at the District of Columbia’s Fort Totten Transfer Station in Washington, D.C., on July 10.
Since China, the top global importer of recyclable materials for years, has stopped to accept recyclables from countries including the United States in January on grounds of “contamination,” the U.S. is struggling with an excess amount of recylcable material and no streamlined process to deal with it. As a result, some plastics and paper end up in landfills, and some smaller American cities have ended recycling collection programs all together. /

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