Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash


The End of Recycling

Industrial recycling efforts are drying up. Stay green by being smart.

4 min readAug 28, 2019


Every Tuesday evening, when I wheel to the curb our two snazzy blue recycling bins filled with plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, and metal waste, I used to get filled with a sense of pride over my small contribution to the planet’s health.

Not anymore. Not since reading this article on the Atlantic website.

In an under reported story, China, which had been recycling 60 percent of US and 70 percent of Europe’s recyclable waste, banned the import of several solid waste products in early 2018, including cardboard, paper, and plastic, in an effort to protect their own environment and workers. Since then, developed nations have been scrambling to replace the cheap Chinese labor that used to sort through our recyclable waste. Only 56 percent of the US plastic waste is being recycled in foreign markets since China’s ban went into place. Most of the rest ends up in landfills.

Ironically, when you think you’re doing the green thing by tossing that Starbucks cup into a blue recycling bin, you’re actually making it more likely that recycling will disappear altogether.

Net-net: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has been reduced to “Reduce and Reuse.” Here are six ways to do so.

(Note: I am not part of any affiliate program and do not stand to profit from the sale of any mentioned products, but the planet sure does.)

1. Stop buying plastic water bottles now.

By 2021, we will consume over 500,000,000,000 plastic bottles a year. That’s half-a-trillion.

Purchase a water filter system to produce your own clean drinking water. The lower end systems, many of which are just as effective as commercial filtration systems, are very affordable. And don’t forget your reusable BPA-free bottle to cart around your clean H2O.

Prefer Pellegrino or LaCroix? Try SodaStream. No matter what fancy brand you prefer, remember it’s only water and gas.

2. Bring reusable tote bags to the market.

Many markets have eliminated single-use plastic bags, which is great. But big brown paper bags aren’t much better. So please bring a reusable tote bag. Markets often sell or even give them away at the point of purchase.

And maybe without trying to sound too sanctimonious, remind the nearby baggers and shoppers in line that 100,000 marine animals are killed by one of the 1,500 plastic single-use plastic bags carted home by an average American family every year. Just sayin’…

3. Unsubscribe to anything print.

I know, I know, the sensual pleasure of holding a book in your hand, or flipping through a magazine or newspaper. But you’re holding a dinosaur. There is zero rationale for reading anything that has been produced on a wood pulp product. Just ask Medium.

4. Be smart about recycling.

Of course, you should keep recycling. Municipalities are trying to localize their recycling efforts, which makes more sense environmentally than shipping our trash to China, and economically by creating local jobs and offering employee ownership (the real way to make America great again).

But in order for recycling to be economically viable, it needs to be highly efficient. When a recycling center receives a contaminated load, i.e. something that isn’t recycled properly, it’s costly to clean and sort the bad stuff out. Ironically, when you think you’re doing the green thing by tossing that Starbucks cup into a blue recycling bin, you’re actually making it more likely that recycling will disappear altogether.

So it’s important to educate yourself on what can and cannot be recycled. Wash that peanut butter jar clean. Don’t recycle the greasy pizza box. The waste industry hasn’t made it easy for us with their different plastic recycling codes, but it’s important to follow the recycling guidelines set by your local public works department.

Better than recycling is reusing. Companies like Stasher, which makes reusable silicone storage bags, and Patagonia, which sells refurbished Patagonia clothing through their Worn Wear line, are making it easier for consumers to reuse.

5. Lobby companies to be smarter about packaging.

When I shop on Amazon, it’s easy for me to rationalize how I’m reducing my carbon emissions by ordering stuff online. But, man, they sure use a lot of packaging. Can you even recycle those endless chains of plastic pillows they include inside the cardboard boxes? (The answer is yes, but not curbside. You need to bring them to the plastic bag recycling bins available at some supermarkets.)

The good news is Amazon is making efforts to streamline their packaging. The bad news is they’re not being very smart about it. And I personally stopped using because they’re packaging was outrageously excessive.

3M, the company who brought us Post-It Notes (quite by accident, incidentally) has developed a new product, Flex & Seal Shipping Roll, which they claim will reduce not only the material but the time it takes to package goods by 50 percent.

Maybe we can let the Amazons of the world (OK, there’s only one) know they need to make reducing packaging waste a top priority, not just a second thought.

6. Do We Really Need More Stuff?

At the end of the day, that’s really the question we need to ask ourselves.

“To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.”
― Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst