We recently ran several stories in our newspaper - and in our sister publication, The Brainerd Dispatch - explaining a change to how Crow Wing County issues Select Committee on Recycling and the Environment (SCORE) funding.
The recycling issue is much bigger than anything we could really ever hope to fit into one story, so we split it into three. One of the stories was more than 2,200 words long (which may be the longest story I have ever written!).
Anyone who knows about recycling and its current challenges knows that's just the tip of the ice berg.
After a reader with Nisswa Sanitation saw one of those stories in the Dispatch, specifically the county level information, they wanted to make a few things clear. The first is what I just said. The issues waste haulers face right now is complex and huge. The second is that China hasn't refused to accept our recycling; China has refused to accept our garbage.
In my story where I talked to waste haulers, I touched briefly (because nobody wanted a 4,000-word story) on the fact that China is refusing to accept heavily contaminated recycling. In the past, anything that was brought to sorting centers but was too contaminated with junk (hoses, wires, etc.) would be sold to China to meet state recycling goals.
One of my sources spoke specifically of paper that had become mixed with broken glass. Because China would accept it as “recycling” it was documented as having been recycled. In reality, it was trash and China likely couldn't use it any more than we could. Now, China is willing to accept materials from us, so long as they are very, very low in contaminants.
China doesn't want to buy our garbage anymore, and nobody can blame them for that.
In our stories, we interviewed representatives from the county, area cities and waste haulers. We barely touched on consumers.
A lot of the solutions to the problems our recyclers face today are bypassed entirely in other countries simply because companies and manufacturers elsewhere tend to avoid making, packaging or selling problem materials. In the United States, we keep using junk plastic packaging, products with extremely limited lifespans and the things that make our waste stream many, many times higher than, for example, Japan or many European countries.
Manufacturers and packagers do this because of demand; so once again, unless there is serious government intervention (which nobody really wants), the consumer holds the key to the problem. Here are just a few ways we are messing up:
By buying throw-away products. This includes cheaply made toys and items we are going to throw away after one use, like plastic party hats and decorations. If you aren't thinking about how or where to store the item because you don't plan to do so, consider not buying it.
By letting big companies have their way. We should be angry that companies engineer their products to break eventually to ensure a future purchase. We should also get angry that companies that make computers, video game systems and even tractors managed to get laws on the books saying we can't fix their product after we've bought it. In some cases, it's illegal for you to open them up at all. It used to be when something broke, you fixed it. Companies have intentionally made that more difficult.
By not trying hard enough. This is me too. I recently brought what had to be hundreds of plastic bags to a plastic bag dropoff site. I have a lifetime of reusable shopping bags; this shouldn't be an issue..
By passing the buck. Sure, the big cities look dirtier than our hometowns and rural homes, but that doesn't mean we don't share the blame or can't do better. We are creatures of convenience, so as long as we don't have to confront an inconvenience, we can make believe it doesn't exist. The plastic from our trash isn't floating on our lake shores, so who cares if it is in the ocean? Hey, I brought the aluminum cans to the recycling center; the plastic bag they are in is their problem. We found a solution that will work for the next 100 years, so let the people who are alive then worry about it.
You might not like that train of thought, but we as consumers can either fix the problem before it gets too big, or we will basically force politicians to act in our stead. I think most people can agree the political solution is usually more expensive and less effective than a private solution.