RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RR: Here let me give you these.
AT: Oh thank you. These are earplugs
RM: Let me take you back. Back to a simpler time. The year 2016.
AT: what is this?
RR: So this is recycle central- this is the large recycling plant where we sort all the materials from the blue bins, the bottles, the cans, the paper.
RM: in 2016, producer Avery Trufelman was working on a story about garbage and recycling pickup systems, it’s episode #213. But don’t worry, this is not a re-run. This story is different.
AT: Back then, for that story in 2016, I took a tour of the plant that sorts all of San Francisco’s recycling.
RR: We do 600 tons a day here.
AT: That’s Robert Reed, the representative for San Francisco Recology, which is the company that is responsible for San Francisco’s recycling program. Their trucks round up all the recycling around the city, bring it to a MRF.
RM: M-R-F: a Materials Recovery Facility.
AT: At the MRF the trucks dump all the recycling into a big mountain. And then the wild part begins. This particular MRF in San Francisco has all this elaborate machinery that looks like it’s out of a Miyazaki movie.
RR: You see a recycling superstructure, it’s three stories high. Pretty shortly the conveyor belts will start up and we’ll sort this into 16 different types of material.
AT: This three-story tall superstructure, and the 173 people that were working on it, were separating and cleaning the recycling. Sorting it into glass, paper, plastic, et cetera.
RR: It gets separated through a combination of hand sorting and modern recycling equipment.
AT: Modern recycling equipment like the optical sorter that can automatically separate different color plastics.
RR: Right here the scanner is looking at materials as they come by, and when it sees a clear plastic water bottle it hits it with a puff of air. And you can hear it! It’s expensive, it costs three million dollars for this machine and it came from the Netherlands.
AT: And at the time, in 2016, when I was younger and things were simpler, I didn’t quite grasp this simple fact: they weren’t actually recycling anything. They were not churning the paper into pulp or melting down the plastic into pellets. The MRF was simply sorting and cleaning all the materials.
RM: They were loading bales of clean recycling onto shipping containers, So they could sell them to mills, who would then pulp the paper and melt the plastic.
AT: I was just like “ok cool.” and I left well enough alone. I just figured all those mills and plants would always be there, wherever they were, waiting to accept our stuff. How could I have known, that in the near future, this global recycling system would go off the rails?
RM: It happened right under our noses. And most people, including me until very recently, had no idea.
KO: The industry has been using the phrase “The end of recycling as we know it.”
AT: Kate O’Neill, is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. And she kind of freaked me out.
KO: Yeah, you know, I would say for a lot of stuff that we throw into the recycling, it’s not happening.
RM: A lot of recycling is no longer actually getting recycled.
AT: The lists of accepted materials are shrinking in some cities. Depending on where you live, certain types of plastic aren’t being collected anymore, maybe certain kinds of paper or cardboard.
KO: In many communities, local governments have stopped picking up recycling.
KO: Just stopped, yeah. It goes in the general trash.
AT: Even if they do collect it, they’ve had a hard time finding places to ship it. Instead of making money selling recycling, recycling companies are losing money on it.
KO: Now they are paying someone to take it.
AT: Just to store it?
AT: Because they just lost their biggest buyer. The place America, and much of Australia and Europe and Canada, sent a huge amount of our recycling.
RM: This magical land where your empty plastic bottles and old soup cans went to be reincarnated….was China.
KO: They were taking most of the world’s scrap.
AT: China had been taking most of the world’s scrap since about 2001, which is around the time China joined the World Trade Organization. That’s when they really ramped up selling goods all over the world in massive shipping containers. And rather than send the containers back empty, we sent them back filled with recycling. Which was actually really cost effective.
KO: It’s cheaper to ship scrap from California to China than California to even Arizona, potentially.
AT: And this system seemed to work well. Cities could subsidize their recycling pickup programs from the money they made selling these materials to China. And then they didn’t need to process the materials themselves. Capitalism at work!
KO: We basically outsourced, we gave up on even trying to improve infrastructure here because we could ship it to China!
AT: And it seemed like a logical system. As long as China kept wanting to buy our recycling. But then China pulled a move that no one saw coming. Operation National Sword.
RM: A pretty aggressive name for a piece of recycling legislation.
AT: Basically, National Sword is China’s ban on the import of foreign recyclables. It started in 2018 and the list of banned items has steadily grown. It has the potential of banning all recyclable materials by 2020…but we don’t know if that will happen or not
RM: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why China got fed up with this system all of a sudden. There are a number of factors you can point to. But a lot of experts think it’s because of….a movie.
AT: This Chinese documentary called Plastic China by director Wang Jilang
AT: It focuses on this insanely cute little girl, whose family works at a plastic recycling facility. She never gets sent to school because she is helping her parents watch her younger siblings and sort through mountains of shredded plastic
AT: They’re cutting up plastic, melting it, soaking it and turning it into a sludge, and then turning THAT into hardened pellets. The little girl washes her face in the gray plastic-y water and eats fish that have choked on plastic.
RM: This family lives with the shredding machine. They eat and sleep near it.
KO: Inhaling the dust, the microparticles that come off during the shredding process and the fumes from the melting process. There’s a lot of bad stuff there.
AT: And all the plastic, it’s all clearly from western countries. The little girl longingly cuts out shoes from a discarded European catalog and gleefully plays with dirty old figurines of Mickey Mouse. It is absolutely heartbreaking.
RM: And it broke a lot of hearts on the International film festival circuit.
KO: And then it was also shown in China for a while. I think it got on the internet there, but the government saw it and yanked it from the Chinese internet. And were like, “We can’t keep doing this.”
AT: And … this movie did really make a difference?
KO: Yes. Yes, I believe it did.
RM: Causation or correlation, it was after this documentary that China instituted Operation National Sword.
AT: China realized that they needed to crack down on these informal recycling plants and build safe, efficient recycling systems. They want to improve their own domestic recycling rates in their cities and towns. They have a lot of work to do. And they have more than enough stuff to recycle without taking on more from other countries. So they decided to stop accepting our recyclables. Which I mean, fair enough. It’s a good move for them.
KO: I think China was no longer interested in being, well never REALLY wanted to be, but felt like it was being seen as the garbage dump of the world. You know, It’s not its responsibility to take in all of our trash and it’s got a point!
RM: And so now here we are. Blinking into the cold harsh light of 2019. National Sword has been in action for about a year now.
CR: some people call it a crisis, others don’t like the word crisis but that’s sort of where we are.
AT: Although I feel like it got a little buried in the news cycle. That is, unless you are a dedicated reader of Wastedive.
CR: Wastedive is a trade publication. We cover the waste and recycling industry, just generally the future of what happens to the materials we buy and throw away.
AT: Cole Rosengren is the Senior Editor. And reading Wastedive, it’s like reading the news from the upside down. It’s a parallel world, where the things we do in the realm of the shiny and new are perfectly reflected in the grimy and used.
RM: Because waste systems are affected by so many factors: local resources, global policy, packaging and product trends, new material technology….on and on. It’s a whole complex system. Especially in the US.
CR: Ah, super complicated. So, more complicated than it ought to be.
AT: In the United States, recycling programs vary depending on individual cities, counties, and states.
CR: We don’t have a national recycling policy. other countries do in a variety of ways. Here in the US we do not.
AT: So in the wake of National Sword, it’s been up to each individual recycling program to find new buyers, wherever they can. some have started selling their recyclables to Southeast Asia, countries like Vietnam and Malaysia and Thailand. Others are finding domestic markets, at least for certain materials.
CR: With aluminum and plastic and paper mills, you know, there are places in the US to send this that will buy this material to make new products with it. And so, with that in mind, areas of the country that have an end market in reasonable distance, they’re doing ok.
RM: And now there’s a big push to invest more in domestic recycling infrastructure. Which is good!
CR: There’s over a dozen announcements of either new or expanded paper mills happening in the US.
AT: But here’s the thing: all these new plastic, glass, and paper mills will not save us. Because now THEY are getting so inundated with recyclables that they’re increasingly putting their own restrictions on what kinds of material they are willing to accept!
RM: And there’s a good reason why all these places started turning away our recycling.
CR: The stuff we’ve been sending them was too dirty.
AT: So much of what we throw into the recycling bin is filthy. Contaminated with liquids and food waste or oil. And this kind of contamination just ruins the material.
RM: So if you’re the anal one in your house who is rinsing the yogurt out of the yogurt containers before you throw them out YOU ARE RIGHT! YOU ARE DOING IT RIGHT!
AT: But most people haven’t been doing it right.
CR: The contamination rates have been pretty high. And they’ve risen in the past ten years or so.
RM: As a result, a lot of the stuff we were throwing in the recycling bin was never truly recyclable material in the first place. It was just trash. And a lot of time it just ended up in landfill or incineration.
AT: Operation National Sword didn’t create these problems. It just revealed them. And then threw them back at us. Well, mostly threw them at the MRFs. They’re the ones with heaps and heaps of useless recycling piling up and wondering where to put it.
AT: So it’s been a minute since we spoke last and big things have happened.
AT: So I checked back with Robert Reed, the representative of San Francisco Recology who showed me around their plant back in the good old days of 2016.
At- what’s been going on since I saw you last?
RR: Lots of things. … if you lose your biggest customer it really upsets the apple cart.
AT: Reed explained that now, in this new buyer’s market, mills are only accepting the most easily recyclable items. Which means the items that are almost PERFECTLY pure and clean.
RR: There are efforts underway to reduce liquids and any food scraps in recycling bins.
AT: and so Recology has been investing more and more in sorting and cleaning technology, to make sure they can keep selling. Which means they bought MORE OPTICAL SORTERS.
RR: As we speak we’re installing state of the art optical sorters in our plant, that came from France.
AT: They now have seven high-speed, computer-controlled optical sorters. These big elaborate machines that do the work we don’t want to do.
RM: But also the MRFs want us, the consumers, to send them cleaner recycling. Which would make recycling less expensive and more efficient for everyone.
RR: We’re doing things to encourage the public to help us make cleaner bales of recycling… and so we’ve launched a new initiative in October called, “Better at the bin.”
(voice) : “The key to success is all of us doing a better job at sorting our recyclables. We call this initiative ‘Better At The Bin.’”
AT: Recology is posting these high production value videos on their social media and on betteratthebin.com, to try to convince everyone to take little steps to be better recyclers.
(voice): “If one half full bottle or can gets tossed in the recycling bin, the liquid can ruin the whole lot.”
RM: Remember reduce, reuse, recycle? Well somewhere along the way, we totally lost track of the “reduce” and “reuse” and focused too much on “recycle.”
“Refuse single-use plastic straws, plastic bags, and plastic coffee cup lids. Don’t buy plastic bottles, carry a metal water bottle.”
AT: Yes. This is 100% true, we definitely have all got to get better about generating less waste, and cleaning what we do recycle. But this alone is simplifying the real complexity of the problem. For example, at the end of the interview, Robert Reed pulled out a totally normal looking tube of toothpaste.
RR: You can’t recycle this container. You still have the metal on the inside, the soft plastic on the outside, the hard plastic neck & cap, the residual toothpaste, not to mention the printing. There are four or five kinds of materials here and they all go to landfills or incinerators.
AT: And then he pulled out this small aluminum case.
RR: And I’m opening it up and in there is a cake of toothpaste. It’s a dry cake. It lasts for 45 days. And at the end of those 45 days, you just drop another cake into the aluminum jar.
AT: I mean, can you buy them in the states?
RR: I haven’t been able to find them in the states yet, this one was purchased in France.
AT: This struck me as fairly ridiculous. How are we supposed to buy cakes of toothpaste from France that we don’t know exist? And it’s not like shipping toothpaste across the Atlantic is exactly environmentally friendly. Again, it’s absolutely true that we need to get better at using less, and cleaning our recycling, and researching what our local systems will accept. Definitely. But like, we throw out a lot of junk because we are sold a lot of junk! So much of this problem is about the products that we are sold and have access to.
MW: I’m just getting fed up with the way we talk about our pollution problem.
AT: Matt Wilkins is a biologist, and he wrote a piece for Scientific American about our current recycling mess.
MW: We should not have to fight as individuals against this constant onslaught of plastic.
RM: Take for example, the term “litterbug.” You don’t want to be a litterbug, right?
MW: You know, litterbugs are the problem! It’s not the fact that we have this unfettered production of billions of containers happening at all times and no infrastructure to reclaim those materials.
AT: And that nickname, litterbug, it was popularized, in large part, by a group called Keep America Beautiful.
MW: This lobbying group, Keep America Beautiful, founded by Pepsi and Coke and Phillip Morris, among others.
AT: Keep America Beautiful was formed in 1953, around the same time Vermont was creating legislation ahead of its time. It would have made it illegal to bottle anything in a non-refillable container. And of course, the beverage industry was against it. They wanted to frame the problem of waste as something that should be dealt with not by companies, but by consumers.
RM: You know, litterbugs.
AT: Keep America Beautiful was essentially a lobbying group. But its master-stroke in consumer shaming came in 1971, when they rolled out a very persuasive advertising campaign.
MW: Yeah, the crying Indian ad was…basically, there’s a Native American canoeing through like a pristine forest, which is apparently right next to a highway. And he paddles right up to the bank of the highway and climbs out and then people are speeding by and then a motorist basically hits him with a bag of trash. And the camera pans up and there’s a tear rolling down his cheek.
AT: This ad, which *ahem* featured an Italian actor playing a Native American, became iconic. But its basic lesson wasn’t exactly wrong.
“People start pollution, people can stop it.”
AT: But the ad made it seem that so long as consumers stopped littering, all of our garbage woes would be solved, which of course is not true. It let the corporations that were making all those disposable items off the hook.
RM: Although, to be fair, this is not exactly their stance anymore. Only a few years after the crying Indian Ad, Keep America Beautiful changed their tune.
MW: So they actively fought this legislation in a public way, I think up until the early ‘80s and then they kind of switched tactics and have basically since then been kind of getting in on the Earth Day push and telling people to recycle and organizing cleanups and stuff.
AT: Representatives from Keep America Beautiful told me that they now advocate recycling legislation and that their corporate partners want to do their part. These days, especially in the shadow of National Sword, corporations and governments have had to acknowledge the scale of our recycling problem. In a very public way.
Andrew Wheeler: We are gathered here today to advance solutions to today’s recycling challenges.
AT: That’s the voice of Andrew Wheeler, former coal industry lobbyist and current acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In November of 2018, the EPA convened a two-hour-long panel discussion, in an attempt to attempt deal with the fallout from National Sword.
AW: we cannot tackle these challenges alone, which is why we are thrilled to have representatives from nearly every aspect of the materials economy gathered here today.
AT: At this literal round table were the biggest names in the recycling world, from Waste Management to Wal Mart.
AW: It’s not every day you get Keurig and Starbucks, Coca Cola and Pepsi and Dr Pepper all in the same room together and I’m really glad you’re all here.
AT: Keep America Beautiful was there, and Cole Rosengren was also there in the room, covering it for Wastedive.
CR: Maybe this EPA summit will lead to something? .I hate to be so flippant about that. Maybe it does? That would be cool.
AT: Basically each representative had like, less than a minute to speak and everyone mentioned a million different problems with our recycling system. But, there was this butterfly at the bottom of Pandora’s box. This common refrain that companies, recyclers, and municipalities alike all mentioned.
Voice 1: Consumers look for us to give them sustainable products.
Voice 2: We need to think about the future of packaging.
Voice 3: And we need to design the right way.
RM: Yes, dear listener, one of the most important solutions to our recycling woes might actually lay in, design.
AT: At the EPA meeting, the representative from Proctor and Gamble talked about their award-winning container made out of plastic cleaned up from the beach.
PGR: What we did with the Head and Shoulders bottle was we took the iconic white bottle, we used plastic collected from beaches and it became grey. But we sold it that way and consumers bought it.
AT: Ok so, this was a limited edition product. And, I kid you not, it was only available in France.
RM: Dammit, France!
AT: But, the point is, that kind of packaging is possible. These companies have the capacity and the technology! And we can ask for it!
MW: I think another thing we can do is demand better design of everything. With the end of life planned from the beginning.
AT: Matt Wilkins, the biologist again. And better design can mean a couple of things. Yes, it can mean finding new ways to use recycled materials, like that gray Head and Shoulders bottle. At the very least, it means making products really easy and efficient to recycle.
MW: Everything should be able to break down into its composite materials and separate them in a way that doesn’t introduce impurities, so they can be used again.
RM: And Designers can, and should, visit MRFs and mills. They should know how their products and packaging sort, or don’t sort. Whether they break down or don’t break down.
AT: Designers can also use biodegradable materials or materials like aluminum that recycle more easily than plastic. But the ideal thing, is to design products or even parts of the products that don’t need to be thrown away at all.
KO: Its down to product design. And that you design things that can be repaired?
AT: Like those toothbrushes with detachable heads?
KO: Yeah, and cell phones that you can swap components in and out of.
AT: The Berkeley Professor, Kate O’Neill, says yes, companies have to design greener products. But then the next step is that they shouldn’t just be specialty items.
KO: That should be the norm. I guess people have the label on it so people who are environmentally conscious will buy it, but it turns out it might mean people who don’t care won’t buy it!
AT: It seems like this kind of paradox where we’re saying like, you know, “Don’t blame the consumer, there’s a whole world of influences.” But also like, it’s up to us to harness the power of capitalism and bend the market to our will, as people who spend money.
AT: Which also seems like it’s putting the onus back on the consumer, no?
KO: Well, sometimes I also think it’s not just consumers, but how we act as citizens.
AT: So listen. In the course of researching this story, I’ve had various freakouts. At one point I was defiantly tossing my aluminum cans in the trash like, “WAKE UP SHEEPLE RECYCLING ISN’T REAL!” But that’s not quite true. Like, don’t do what I did. Instead, ask around and find out what’s happening to the recycling where you live. This is a system that has been kept deliberately invisible, for the sake of our convenience. And we need to learn how to notice it and really think about how our stuff is made and where it’s going when we throw it “away.”
RM: Operational National Sword could be a wakeup call. But only if everyone can hear it.