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Blaming the Chinese for what ails the U.S. recycling industry is an exercise in convenience.

Last year, China announced a change in policies rooted in the nation's desire to no longer be the "world's garbage dump." Those policies went into effect Jan. 1. In the months sense, their impact on U.S. recycling programs has grown more intense.

What’s the point?

Recycling, by individuals, local governments and private enterprise, will require a devoted effort to succeed.

Last Monday, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette featured a story about this region's reliance on markets affected by China's decisions, and it's not good. The prices local governments and private waste haulers can get for recyclable materials are down across the board.

China had been a primary destination for recyclable materials from around the world, a fact that provided some stability within the larger realm of the markets for such materials. China's closed door has led to a glut of materials amid a lack of markets for them.

Communities can collect recyclable materials all they want, but unless there's a market ready and willing to accept (and pay for) those materials for reuse, waste collectors face tough decisions: Pay someone to take recyclable (which leads to higher rates for customers), let the materials pile up in hopes better markets will develop or, grudgingly, ship the items collected to the one place everyone involved in the world of recycling wants to avoid, the landfill.

These days, the public generally expects local governments to provide for some form of recycling. Programs vary from city to city in terms of what's accepted, but people want to know what they put in a recycling bin has future life in new products. The impact isn't as big as any of us would like it to be, but it's a convenient way for Northwest Arkansas residents to contribute to protecting the planet and efficiently using its resources.

Some take it more seriously than others. Last year, the city of Fort Smith revealed it had been going through the exercise of collecting recyclables without telling its customers that it had no where to take them. So where did they end up between 2014 and 2017? In the landfill with all the other trash. The city now faces a lawsuit by sanitation customers who say the city covered up the interruption in service and wasted taxpayer dollars to do so.

The disheartening aspect of all this turmoil in the recycling biz is this: Americans already recycle only about 34 percent of their waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Disruptions to local programs -- and deception about where materials end up -- don't help achieve the levels of recycling this wasteful nation needs. By some estimates, as much as 75 percent of what Americans throw away could be recycled.

The nonprofit Recycle Across America estimates if the nation achieved that 75 percent mark it would be the equivalent of removing 55 million cars from U.S. roads each year.

Yes, we can blame the Chinese, but who is really to blame? Take a look in the mirror.

Recycle Across America estimates people in this country throw away 2.5 million plastic water bottles every hour. Every three months, Americans throw away enough aluminum in landfills to build the nation's entire commercial air fleet. We throw away enough office paper each year to build a 12-foot wall from New York to Seattle (don't tell the president).

Americans need to learn more about what's recycled in their communities and do everything they can to avoid contaminating recyclables with non-recyclable materials. That can frustrate the very effort of everyone who is doing their best to recycle correctly and threatens to devalue the recyclable materials on the open market. When in doubt, throw it out, but take steps to learn enough about the local program that the doubt is removed.

Communities need to work together with industry to build markets for recyclable goods and create the supply chain that delivers clean recyclables into that market.

Americans need to consume less, across the board. Where choices can be made, choose products made from recycled materials. Buy products that use less packaging when possible. Encourage manufacturers to find ways to use less packaging.

Recycle electronics through trade-in programs or through local recycling, such as the Boston Mountain Solid Waste District's program.

Recycling has for too long been viewed as an optional activity. We're not advocating government mandates. Rather, every American ought to build up their own sense of responsibility. If living that out to "save the planet" seems a little too nebulous, just think about doing less damage to our home region here in Northwest Arkansas.

Individuals need to do more. Local governments need to figure out the means by which recycling can be an easy choice. And the public and private sectors need to work together intensely to make the economy of recycling work more effectively.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? Well, doing what's easy doesn't usually produce the kinds of results necessary for the future. And while getting focused on recycling may not be the easiest path, it doesn't have to be that hard, either.

If our nation continues to be a massive creator of waste and fails to respond, it won't be because we don't know how to do it. It will happen because we've chosen to be undisciplined.

Our nation deserves better.

Commentary on 06/10/2018

Print Headline: Wasteful opportunity

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