Staff Editorial: Recycling has changed, now our habits must as well

Since we were little kids, school teachers, PSAs, and neatly laminated signs have taught us to dictate what can be recycled and what should be sent to the landfill. They’ve drilled into our minds that by recycling, we’re doing our part to help the environment.  This all came crashing down around us when China announced on July 18, 2017 that it would be imposing a ban on imports of certain kinds of solid waste by the end of the year— specifically, many of our so-called “recyclables.” Now, we Americans are scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do with plastics, all the while, neglecting to hold corporations, politicians and ourselves accountable.

Last year, Starbucks joined the anti-plastic straw movement by vowing to eliminate plastic straws from all Starbucks’ locations by 2020.  They’re solution? Make a lid that’s made of even more plastic! But don’t worry, Starbucks assured us via Twitter “the strawless lid is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure.”

This is all well and good until you consider the fact that, according to a 2017 study, of the 6300 metric tons of plastic waste produced, around 9% of which had been recycled while 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.  So, you might as well take your fancy “green” Starbucks lid and feed it to a sea turtle, because at least that way you’re being time efficient.

And the solution is not boycotting Starbucks, because the truth is that plastic is inevitable.  According to the UN, nearly 50% of the plastic waste generated globally in 2015 was plastic packaging.  So, if you want to buy something, you’re contributing to the plastic overflowing our landfills and oceans.

A lot of the discourse surrounding plastic puts the responsibility on the consumer.  We’re told to swap plastic water bottles for metal. Start using reusable straws. But this only does so much.

America needs to figure out how to recycle in a cost-effective way, and this starts by changing what individuals put in the recycling bin.  According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, 25% of what we recycle is contaminated. Chinese businesses can no longer pay workers to individually clean each yogurt container that we carelessly recycle without cleaning.

Americans are too aspirational when recycling.  When faced with the question “is this recyclable, or should I throw it out?” we tend to just recycle it and hope for the best.  What’s the worst that could happen? Well, according to the New York Times, China will no longer accept recycling that is 0.5% contaminated.  So a small scrap of food could waste an entire batch of recyclables. This is why many environmentalists have taken on the new slogan “when in doubt, throw it out.”  

By recycling responsibly, we can reduce the cost of recycling, thus incentivizing American corporations to recycle in the US.

In the meantime, the responsibility should be on the companies to stop selling single-use products like plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers.  According to the International Coastal Cleanup, plastic grocery bags are the fifth most common item found littered on shorelines. Many cities, including Chicago, have imposed a tax on plastic bags.  

But the most effective solution?  A sweeping ban on all single-use products.  Therefore, the most you can contribute to the cause is your vote.  Research what your representative is doing to hold companies and consumers accountable.  If they aren’t doing their part, vote them out. Our planet’s future is too precious to risk.