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China's New Recycling Policy Could Give U.S. An Opportunity To Rethink Its Process


Your recyclables may be getting picked up, but they may not be getting recycled. And Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast reports that could be a good thing if you care about the planet.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Thursday is recycling day in Nogales, Ariz. A city truck goes to everyone's homes, picks up their recyclables and dumps them on the floor of a place called Tucson Recycling & Waste Services.

Beer bottles, water bottles, milk jugs.

All this stuff tumbling out of the truck is carefully hand-sorted and hand-rinsed soup cans and newspapers and peanut butter jars from the people of Nogales, Ariz.

KURT WAHL: We - our wish would be to be able to recycle it.

GONZALEZ: This is Kurt Wahl, who runs the place.

WAHL: But we know we can't. We'll end up landfilling that waste.

GONZALEZ: The recyclables are going into the trash - smushed into a pile of wet, gooey food waste.

WAHL: Unfortunately, recycling is - I'm not saying it's dead. I wouldn't say life support, but it's critical (laughter).

GONZALEZ: Kurt Wahl used to get paid for this stuff. China would buy his recyclables and do things like turn peanut butter jars into polyester socks. But last year, China said the U.S. was sending stuff that was too dirty and not sorted properly, so China stopped buying as much. And some cities, particularly small cities, canceled parts of their recycling programs. Others, like Nogales, are just waiting for a new buyer to come on the scene, like some other country that maybe doesn't care as much about dirty recyclables.

But Thomas Kinnaman, an environmental economist at Bucknell University, says maybe shipping to a different country isn't the answer. That burns fossil fuels that can undo the benefits of recycling. He looks at all of the environmental impacts of recycling versus not recycling and all of the economic costs of recycling versus not recycling. And he finds that more recycling isn't always better.

THOMAS KINNAMAN: It's OK to put it in the garbage pile, put it in the landfill and feel OK about it.

GONZALEZ: Kinnaman knows that suggesting landfilling is controversial, but he's not saying put everything in a landfill. Metals, for example, should definitely be recycled, he says. Think soda cans.

KINNAMAN: Anytime an aluminum can ends up in the landfill is a problem. We should be targeting 100% for those materials.

GONZALEZ: Kinnaman says mining for new alumina in the ground, which is how we get aluminum, is worse for the environment than shipping a soda can around the world to get it recycled. But he says paper can kind of go either way. Sometimes it does make both economic and environmental sense to recycle it. Sometimes it doesn't - depends on where you are. But plastic?

KINNAMAN: We're better off, both economically and environmentally, by putting the plastic in a landfill rather than shipping it around the world. So yeah, very well for plastic - put it all in a landfill. Or burn it.

GONZALEZ: So you are making the case for burning plastic. That is not going to go down well with some of our listeners, I feel like.

KINNAMAN: Absolutely won't - not go down well in the United States.

GONZALEZ: Kinnaman says other developed countries - like Germany, Japan, Sweden - they use newer, fancier incinerators that he says give off fewer dangerous emissions than a backyard charcoal barbecue. They are really expensive but, he says, actually best for the environment - better than shipping all over the world and better than landfilling. But the Natural Resources Defense Council is so not down with incineration.

ERIC GOLDSTEIN: That's ridiculous. That's ridiculous.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) You're not buying it?

GOLDSTEIN: Look. Ultimately...

GONZALEZ: This is Eric Goldstein with the NRDC. He says the minute you burn or landfill a plastic jar instead of recycling it, you just took a resource from the earth - oil - to make a jar. And you didn't even try to use it as much as possible. You never gave that resource a second life - not good.

GOLDSTEIN: If we continue to utilize every bit of coal and oil - petroleum that's buried under the ground, we're going to have a planet that is uninhabitable.

GONZALEZ: But both Kinnaman and Goldstein agree that China's new policy is an opportunity to rethink how we recycle.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez is the multimedia education reporter for WLRN's StateImpact Florida project. She comes from NPR in D.C. where she was a national desk reporter, web and show producer as an NPR Kroc Fellow. The San Diego native has worked as a reporter and producer for KPBS in San Diego and KALW in San Francisco, covering under-reported issues like youth violence, food insecurity and public education. Her work has been awarded an SPJ Sigma Delta Chi and regional Edward R. Murrow awards. She graduated from Mills College in 2009 with a bachelorâ
Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.
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